By: Paul Fraidenburgh, Esq.

Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations. This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States.

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:

“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”

The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The overturned decision, which had held that Respondent Raphael Pirker was entitled to dismissal of a $10,000 FAA enforcement action arising out of Mr. Pirker’s UAS operations in the vicinity of the University of Virginia’s campus, condemned the FAA for adopting an “overreaching interpretation” of the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations. The order even went so far as to state that adopting the FAA’s interpretation “would result in reductio ad obsurdum in assertion of FAR regulatory authority over any device/object used or capable of flight in the air, regardless of method of propulsion or duration of flight.” The NTSB’s appellate panel unanimously disagreed.

Today’s decision will maintain lasting significance as the FAA moves forward with developing comprehensive UAS regulations and exercising its jurisdiction over this bourgeoning technology – jurisdiction which the FAA impliedly promised in its appellate brief that it would not abuse.

From Aviation and Airport Law News Blog