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Drone Policy Update: FAA Proposes $1.9m Fine, 3 More Bills Vetoed in California, and More

FAA PROPOSES RECORD FINE FOR UNAUTHORIZED UAS OPERATIONS: On October 6, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it was proposing a $1.9 million civil penalty against SkyPan International, a Chicago-based aerial photography company. FAA alleges that SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized commercial UAS flights over Chicago and New York City between 2012 and 2014. 

Of these, 43 are alleged to have taken place in New York’s Class B airspace. Class B airspace is reserved for the areas around high-traffic airports, and is subject to the most onerous rules among all airspace classes. Basically, flying in Class B airspace without direct authorization from air traffic control is a big no-no. 

The SkyPan case is by far the largest civil penalty proposed by FAA for unauthorized commercial UAS flights, as has been reported. It is also the only civil penalty proposed so far for unauthorized commercial UAS operations. FAA previously proposed a modest $10,000 penalty for reckless operation in the famous Pirker case. FAA eventually settled with Pirker earlier this year for $1,100. Each violation can result in a civil penalty of up to $25,000 under 49 U.S.C. § 46301, but 65 times $25,000 does not add up to $1.9 million.

FAA also notes that in all 65 cases, SkyPan operated without an airworthiness certificate or Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, so perhaps this explains the discrepancy. Further, as Brendan Shulman (who represented Pirker) has noted, FAA usually can only administratively assess civil penalties up to $50,000, with an enforcement action seeking anything greater needing to be filed in a federal district court (49 U.S.C. § 46301(d)(4)). It will be interesting to read the enforcement letter.

3 MORE CALIFORNIA UAS BILLS VETOED: On October 3, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed three UAS bills, all from Sen. Ted Gaines. SB 168 would have explicitly outlawed UAS interfering with firefighting operations (scare story citation). SB 170 would have explicitly outlawed UAS flying over prisons and jails (scare story citation). SB 271 would have criminalized flying over public schools and taking pictures. 

These bills were all poor solutions in search of problems. But what makes Gov. Brown’s vetoes even stronger is his explanation, which should warm the hearts of opponents of overcriminalization and mass incarceration. 

Here is his full veto statement: “Each of these bills creates a new crime—usually by finding a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that is already proscribed. This multiplication and particularization of criminal behavior creates complexity without commensurate benefit. Over the last several decades, California's criminal code has grown to more than 5,000 separate provisions, covering almost every conceivable form of human misbehavior. During the same period, our jail and prison populations have exploded. Before we keep going down this road, I think we should pause and reflect on how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just and more cost-effective.” 

Gov. Brown has emerged as a leader on drone policy, rejecting the baseless fearmongering common among some legislators and members of the public. Earlier, Gov. Brown vetoed a deeply flawed bill that would have greatly restricted legitimate and safe UAS operations. Other governors would be wise to follow his lead.

U.S. OPEN DRONE CRASHER SENTENCED: Remember Daniel Verley? He’s the guy who crashed his 3DR Solo quadcopter into some empty stands at the U.S. Open in September. He was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment as well as two violations of the city’s restrictions on aircraft flight. On October 2, he was sentenced to perform five days of community service tutoring disadvantaged students.

RTCA RELEASES PRELIMINARY STANDARDS FOR LARGE UAS: On October 2, RTCA, an aviation advisory group comprised of experts from industry and government, announced it had completed its Phase I minimum operational performance standards (MOPS) for two components of large unmanned aircraft systems, detect and avoid (DAA) and command and control (C2) data link. RTCA Special Committee 228 (SC-228) was formed in 2013 to develop MOPS for the equipment needed to safely integrate large UAS into the national airspace system. Small UAS are expected to be largely confined to airspace below the minimum navigable airspace. SC-228 is expected to produce final MOPS on DAA and C2 in July 2016.