Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration sought to penalize a commercial drone operator with a massive fine. It ordered Raphael Pirker to pay $10,000 for an October 17th, 2011 incident during which it says Pirker operated his aircraft — in this case a 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider — “in a careless or reckless manner” that put nearby lives and private property in danger. He had been hired to obtain aerial photos and video of the University of Virginia campus for a company called Lewis Communications, and the FAA found numerous faults with Pirker’s attempts to capture that footage. Known as “Trappy” within flyer circles, Pirker has captured similar video of New York City, San Francisco, and other cities in the past.
Faced with such a significant punishment, Pirker is now taking the FAA head on. First, he’s asserting that there are no federal regulations that govern the operation of model planes. But more than that, his appeal before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) could ultimately result in the agency’s 2007 ban on commercial drones being invalidated. His lawyer says this is a reasonable path because the FAA failed to hold any notice-and-comment rulemaking period before issuing the ban — a necessity when its rules may significantly impact the public. Since that never happened, the massive fine can’t be enforced, Pirker’s attorney maintains.
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