FAA, Pirker settle UAS case for $1,100

By Patrick C. Miller | January 23, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has settled its case against unmanned aerial vehicle pilot Raphael Pirker who will pay a $1,100 civil penalty rather than the $10,000 fine the agency originally assessed.

A statement from Team BlackSheep, the Hong Kong-based commercial unmanned aerial systems company for which Pirker flies, said the “favorable settlement” does not “constitute an admission of the allegations” or “admission of any regulatory violation.”

A copy of the settlement agreement signed by Pirker, his attorney Brendan Schulman and Brendan Kelly, an FAA supervisory attorney, said Pirker “does not admit to any allegation of fact or law” and is “resolving the matter solely to avoid the expense of litigation.”

“I don’t read very much—ever—into civil settlements,” said James Mackler, a Nashville attorney specializing in UAS law at the Bone McCallester Norton law firm.

“It’s interesting that they settled, but it really just tells me that they got tired of it, and they should have,” said Mackler. “If the settlement allows the FAA to focus a little more attention on the future and a little less on the past, then it benefits everyone concerned.”

The Pirker case made national headlines when the FAA fined him $10,000 for a commercial UAV flight he conducted in 2011 on the University of Virginia campus and medical center. The agency alleged that Pirker operated the aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner” by flying “at extremely low altitudes over vehicles, buildings, people, streets and structures.”

The Team BlackSheep statement says that in 2013, Pirker decided to defend the case because it was the first opportunity to challenge the FAA’s 2007 policy banning the commercial use of model aircraft, “a policy that had frustrated countless businesses and entrepreneurs for years.”

Last year, the case took on even greater significance when a National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge dismissed the case on the basis that the FAA has never regulated model aircraft. However, last November, that ruling was reversed by the NTSB which said the FAA had the authority to regulate the UAV Pirker was flying.

The NTSB remanded the case to an administrative law judge to collect evidence and issue a finding on whether Pirker's operation of his UAV in 2011 was careless or reckless.

Following that decision, the FAA issued a statement saying, “The FAA believes Mr. Pirker operated a UAS in a careless or reckless manner, and that the proposed civil penalty should stand.”

Noting how the case was likely to proceed each time a ruling was issued, Team BlackSheep’s said, “Combined, the hearing and appeal process would take years.” In addition, the statement said continued pursuit of the case involving a 2011 UAV flight would have no bearing on the FAA’s position that a law passed by Congress in 2012 gave it the authority to regulate all UAS.

Mackler agreed that in Pirker’s case, continuing to fight the FAA would have made no difference for anyone planning to commercially operate UAS under the current regulatory environment.

“The settlement tells us nothing about the FAA’s position or future stance or even the strength or weakness of their case back then,” he said. “It simply tells us that both sides agreed that it’s not worth fighting over any more.”

Pirker continues to dispute the FAA’s allegation that he operated the UAV in a careless or reckless manner, claiming, “The video of the flight was been widely misinterpreted by the FAA and others. The flight route was carefully mapped in advance and approved by university personnel.”

The Team BlackSheep statement stressed that it objects to some of the practices in which new, inexperienced UAV pilots engage.

“We strongly encourage all drone pilots to become fully familiar with their equipment, develop their skills over time, and to take measures to ensure safety in their operating environment, regardless of the laws or regulations that apply,” the statement concludes.


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