An appeals court ruled today that the FAA can make all drone flights illegal. For drone pilots, this means a taking a flight could potentially set them back $10,000 if the FAA uses its powers for dumb.
This new, sweeping power came as the result of a court case. In 2011, drone pilot Raphael "Trappy" Pirker was fined $10,000 by the FAA for flying his drone around University of Virginia. Pirker's misdeed: "reckless flight." Pirker filed a court case, and won because the judge made a distinction between an unmanned aircraft and a manned aircraft.
Today, an appeal by the National Board of Transportation went the other way, and in doing so, authorized the FAA to get drones out of the sky. "An aircraft is 'any' 'device' that is 'used for flight.' We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless," the board wrote.
This is a big problem for drone pilots because it means the FAA can decide pretty much any drone flight is illegal. This could even be a problem for toy helicopter operators if it was enforced, since the definition given here is so broad it includes any device meant for flight. Hell, a Flutterbye Flying Fairy flown the wrong way could ring up a $10,000 fine if their pre-teen daughter incurred the wrath of the FAA.
Now, the ruling definitely makes it sound like Pirker was flying his Ritewing Zephyr like a dick. He's accused of flying it "directly towards an individual standing on a . . . sidewalk causing the individual to take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck by [the] aircraft."
And of course, drones need to be regulated. But regulations that do not distinguish between small flying toys, recreational quadcopters, and larger drones are ham-fisted.
As Motherboard's Jason Koebler pointed out, the video of Pirker's ill-fated flight doesn't show anything out of the ordinary. Of course, it was edited, so perhaps the student-swandive didn't make the final cut, but you can take a look for yourself:
Whether or not Pirker was flying erratically, this ruling is bad. This sets a precedent that'll allow the FAA to fine anyone for flying a drone. This is an irrationally broad ruling, and while it's going to be important to set guidelines for drones, just giving the FAA power to impose fines that could make flying any device, even a small handheld toy, straight-up illegal is not the right call. [Motherboard]