Raphael Pirker’s model-airplane-sized drone darted around buildings, zoomed over a hospital heliport and buzzed passersby to shoot a promotional video. Those were tame moves by his standards.
The implications of that 2011 flight at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville have been less routine. It resulted in a $10,000 fine issued June 27, the first U.S. enforcement action against a drone pilot, and thrust Pirker into a debate over regulating unmanned aircraft as planes and helicopters costing less than $1,000 enter the market.
“They really occupy a new space and it’s very difficult to figure out how to regulate them,” Peter Asaro, an assistant professor at the New School in New York who has written about drones and the ethics of using robots in war, said in an interview.
Drone spending is expected to reach more than $89 billion in the next 10 years with annual expenditures more than doubling from $5.2 billion to $11.6 billion, as the aircraft take on more civilian tasks, according to Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting company the Teal Group Corp. Boeing Co. (BA:US)’s Insitu and AeroVironment Inc. (AVAV:US) are among companies making these new aircraft.
Pushed by drones’ military success, Congress last year passed a law giving the Federal Aviation Administration until 2015 to write rules for integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace. Lawmakers also ordered the agency to move faster on standards for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
Pirker’s lawyer is appealing the fine against the Swiss citizen dubbed an “aerial anarchist” in a report by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. He doesn’t dispute the flight occurred while saying the fine should be dismissed because the FAA hasn’t written rules.
The only way to operate a drone in the U.S. now is to get a limited permit from the FAA, which doesn’t grant them for commercial flights like Pirker’s. The agency has awarded 1,014 such certificates since 2009, according to its website.
The agency hasn’t completed rules for unmanned craft other than for those under 25 pounds used by law enforcement. It’s also wrestling with privacy issues raised by lawmakers and groups such as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
An FAA order charged Pirker with operating a drone made with a foam wing and weighing less than 5 pounds in a “careless or reckless manner.” The agency declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman, said in an interview.
The regulation cited by the FAA has been used against traditional pilots who buzzed homes or made other unsafe maneuvers. In 2009, the FAA fined a Colorado man who launched an unmanned weather balloon that flew over Denver International Airport, according to agency records.
Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, said the regulation doesn’t apply in this case. Pirker was fined because he accepted money, making it a commercial flight that the FAA said it wouldn’t permit in a 2007 policy notice. That notice has no legal standing, Schulman, of the firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP (1281L:US) in New York, said an interview.
Similar flights by drone hobbyists haven’t drawn enforcement by the FAA, Schulman says. Video of an unpaid foray by Pirker and his team over New York shows close encounters with pedestrians, apartment buildings and the Statue of Liberty. The group filmed over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars in another video.
While the FAA has published voluntary guidelines for flying hobbyist aircraft, there aren’t any legal restrictions.
Pirker and others in the group he helped form, Team BlackSheep, fly small, lightweight aircraft that can be operated near people and buildings without threatening safety, he said in an e-mail.
Pirker, 29, now lives in Hong Kong. The FAA has authority over foreign citizens or companies that violate its regulations in the U.S. and can take legal action to collect fines if they’re upheld.
“Drones have an outstanding safety record and most of them are made small and light enough to be safe to use around people, unlike manned aircraft or other tools that drones are looking to replace,” he said.
The agency’s order said Pirker flew a Ritewing Zephyr, a battery-powered flying wing, over the Charlottesville, Virginia, campus and medical center on Oct. 17, 2011.
Pirker, who resembles a science fiction character as he wears goggles displaying real-time video he uses to steer his small aircraft, said he began flying gliders and gasoline-powered models while young.
He makes his living selling small drones and flying them for hire, he said.
While he’s cited the lack of rules in trying to get his fine thrown out, he said he sees the need for regulations so the drone industry can grow.
“Right now we use unmanned aircraft for playing, but I think there is a lot more potential for several industries,” he said.
The FAA hasn’t responded to Schulman’s motion to dismiss the fine. Pirker’s appeal will be decided by a judge at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which hears appeals of FAA enforcement actions.
Pirker flew his drone at “extremely low altitudes over vehicles, buildings, people, streets and structures,” the FAA said in its order. Pirker notified local officials he would be flying over the hospital heliport to prevent risk of a mid-air collision, Schulman said.
The proliferation of drones isn’t an issue just for the FAA, the New School’s Asaro said. Devices that weren’t envisioned in regulations written decades ago have become a challenge for law enforcement and the military, he said. London-based Amnesty International issued a report Oct. 22 calling U.S. drone strikes “unlawful.”
“What the technology does is make it much easier to violate the law,” he said.
While Pirker appears to be the first drone operator to be fined by the FAA, according to Schulman, two recent incidents in New York raised safety and legal concerns.
A Queens man died Sept. 5 after he was struck in the head by his remote-controlled copter. A Brooklyn man was charged this month with reckless endangerment after a drone struck buildings and crashed onto a sidewalk near Grand Central Terminal.
Cases such as these make it crucial for FAA to move quickly while adopting appropriate restrictions, Kenneth Witcher, dean of the College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Worldwide, said in an interview.
“If we introduce unmanned aircraft systems into the U.S. airspace system and have a tragic accident, it’s going to hurt the industry,” he said.
Pirker’s flight in Virginia ran afoul of rules that the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a Muncie, Indiana, group representing more than 150,000 hobbyists, recommends for its members, Richard Hanson, a spokesman said.
The group’s safety code says planes shouldn’t be flown in public areas or over unprotected people.
“It raises numerous safety questions and would be outside the safety guidelines that we establish for the members of the academy,” Hanson said of Pirker’s actions. “You know that these things are going to crash someday. You always fly them in an environment that’s not going to hurt anyone.”
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