The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that drones are aircraft for the purpose of the Federal Aviation Administration's prohibition of their careless or reckless use, but skirted other issues on the regulation of drones.
Pointing to the definition in U.S. regulations that an aircraft is any device that is "used for flight in the air," NTSB ruled that the prohibition on careless and reckless operation applies to any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small.
The definitions on their face do not exclude even a "model aircraft" from the meaning of "aircraft," the board observed.
The NTSB said it was not addressing petitions including amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs on issues ranging from rule making for drones to protection of First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
As the classification of UAS (unmanned aircraft system), popularly known as drones, does not appear in the Federal Aviation Regulations, it is necessary to examine the FAA policy for the existence of a rule imposing regulatory authority concerning UAS operations, administrative law judge Patrick G. Geraghty of the NTSB wrote in his March order, which was appealed by the FAA.
The FAA policy regarding the commercial use of drones, based on a 2007 policy statement, "cannot be considered as establishing a rule or enforceable regulation," he added.
Commercial drones are currently banned in the U.S., except for certain exemptions like one announced in September for some TV and movie production companies. Amazon.com and Google have said they plan to use drones to deliver goods. FAA is required by U.S. Congress to frame a "safe integration" plan for the commercial use of UAS by Sept. 30, 2015.
Geraghty was ruling in an appeal against an FAA order that imposed a fine of US$10,000 on aerial photographer Raphael Pirker in October 2011 for flying recklessly a powered glider aircraft in the vicinity of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Virginia. Pinker was said to have been engaged to supply aerial photographs and video of the university campus and medical center for a compensation. He had argued that his aircraft, which was described as an UAS, was in fact a model aircraft.
NTSB referred the matter back to the administrative law judge to decide whether the drone was operated "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another," in violation of federal regulations.
The FAA said the NTSB order affirmed its authority to "take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner."