- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2014

A judge’s decision could, at least temporarily, open U.S. skies to commercial drone use.

National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled Thursday that the federal government erred when fining drone operator Raphael Pirker $10,000 for using the craft to film a commercial for the University of Virginia. Judge Geraghty said there is no enforceable regulation under current Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibiting such use, adding even more confusion to the already murky picture of what unmanned aircraft can and can’t do in American skies.

The ruling applies to U.S. airspace below 400 feet and could open the door for commercial drone use by companies such as Amazon, which has said it’s eyeing the craft as a cost-effective way to deliver packages.

The FAA, charged by Congress to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September 2015, vowed to appeal the ruling.

“The FAA is appealing the decision … to the full National Transportation Safety Board, which has the effect of staying the decision until the Board rules,” the agency said in a statement. “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”

The drone industry’s leading trade group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the decision makes clear the need for the federal government to craft clear, well-defined rules for drones as soon as possible.

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“Our paramount concern is safety. We must ensure the commercial use of [drones] takes place in a safe and responsible manner, whenever commercial use occurs. The decision also underscores the immediate need for a regulatory framework for small” drones, said the group’s president and CEO, Michael Toscano.

The FAA says it will issue new rules on small drones — those weighing under 55 pounds — later this year, part of the larger effort to integrate the craft into the skies by September of next year.

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