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Congress Needs to Act to Bring about a Drone Revolution

Yesterday, a full panel of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) overturned a previous ruling from an NTSB administrative law judge in the Pirker case.

In Pirker, the FAA had assessed a $10,000 fine against a photographer for using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, to take photos on the University of Virginia campus. The administrative law judge held that the FAA lacked the authority to regulate a “model aircraft” as was used by Raphael Pirker.

In reversing this order, the full NTSB today noted that the distinction between “model aircraft” and “aircraft” is irrelevant. Model aircraft were never formally exempted from FAA regulation (a nonbinding 1981 guidance document is as close as we get, which is not close at all), so the FAA claiming Pirker was unsafely operating an aircraft is a reasonable interpretation of the governing statute and implementing regulation defining “aircraft.” The NTSB remanded the case back to the judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether or not Pirker operated his UAS “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

While the ruling is likely to upset UAS enthusiasts, it is reasonable given the incredibly broad authority FAA has been granted to manage and police the airspace. Rather than denying that the FAA has the authority to do pretty much what it wants with respect to the airspace, we should be focusing on actual reforms that might more rapidly usher in commercial UAS operations.

As I noted earlier this year, Congress in 2012 ordered the FAA to integrate UASs into the national airspace system by September 2015. A Department of Transportation Inspector General audit report published in June 2014 found that the FAA was so mired in its own bureaucracy that not only would it fail to meet the 2015 congressional deadline, but that “it is uncertain when and if full integration of UAS into the [National Airspace System] will occur.”

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing this morning on “FAA Reauthorization: Issues in Modernizing and Operating the Nation’s Airspace.” The focus of this hearing was largely on structural reforms to air traffic control (should it be commercialized?) and NextGen. None of the witnesses represented the UAS community, but Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel had an interesting back and forth on the FAA’s shortcomings on integrating UASs into the national airspace system, as Congress had mandated back in 2012’s FAA reauthorization.

Congress should take the inspector general’s audit report seriously and examine reforms to the FAA and airspace management that will allow for the integration of UASs into the national airspace system. This is an issue that must be seriously considered in the forthcoming FAA reauthorization debates if Congress is going to maintain any credibility on emerging aircraft technology.