Drones Can Be Regulated by FAA Rules: NTSB

By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 18, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The NTSB has ruled that drones, despite being in a regulatory gray area, are subject to the FAA's rules.

This is a reversal of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judge's ruling in March, which found that the FAA didn't have any legitimate regulations which could touch drone pilots. But on Tuesday, that judge's decision was appealed to the four-member board, which reversed the lower administrative decision and found that drones are indeed "aircraft" under the FAA's regulations.

So with all this back and forth, what should drone pilots know about this NTSB ruling?

FAA Rules Are Good Enough, for Now

When the NTSB judge ruled in March, he noted that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hadn't followed the proper rulemaking procedures in putting forward drone-specific rules. Because of that, the FAA was only left with a very broad notice from 1981 on model airplanes -- which is the source of the "400 foot" rule. With no legitimate regulations on drone pilots, this decision would have allowed drones to fly without FAA oversight until the Administration could propose and approve new drone regulations.

But when the full Board looked at this case, they had a slightly different take on the FAA's role in regulating drones. They disagreed with the argument that because "model aircraft" were specifically excluded from "aircraft" in the 1981 model airplane rules, the federal laws supporting the FAA's enforcement should be interpreted as not regulating model aircraft like drones.

The four-member panel found that "aircraft" in the federal law had a plain meaning: any device used for flight in the air. And while the previous decision warned that under this definition even paper airplane operators would be subject to FAA regulation, the NTSB affirmed that the definition did not exclude model airplanes or drones.

What Will Happen to Drone Pilots?

In the case before the Board, Huerta v. Pirker, Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 for the alleged reckless use of his drone, which he was using as a photographer. Pirker doesn't necessarily have to pay the fine yet; Tuesday's ruling just affirms that his drone is subject to the law about reckless aircraft use.

For other drone enthusiasts, it means that there are potentially significant consequences for operating drones "recklessly," and that the FAA could use this decision to resolve future issues about drone regulation.

Pirker may also still appeal his case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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