A battle for rights to U.S. airspace is brewing between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and organizations looking to operate small, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for commercial and other purposes.
Texas EquuSearch, a non-profit organization that helps search for missing people, this week charged the FAA with "unlawful, arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion" after the agency ordered that it stop using small drones in search and rescue missions. The lawsuit, filed Monday, is the second time in recent months that the FAA has found itself in a legal fight over the operation of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In March, an administrative law judge at the National Transportation Safety Board overturned a $10,000 fine imposed by the FAA on an individual for operating a UAV to take aerial photos and videos of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The judge reasoned that the FAA had no basis for imposing the fine because there are no formal rules or guidelines for operating unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace.
The FAA had charged that Raphael Pirker had flown the aircraft over the school in a dangerous and reckless manner and in violation of federal aviation safety rules. The FAA also had faulted Pirker for operating the drone for commercial gain without the requisite FAA authorization.
The Texas EquuSearch lawsuit promises to be another test of the FAA's ability to regulate commercial drones. And as more and more organizations begin to use or test drones for commercial applications, the FAA's authority to regulate the vehicles without formal laws in place first could be further tested.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. It also requires that the agency draft rules governing the use of drones by law enforcement agencies and private entities.
The law is expected to allow tens of thousands of drones to be used for commercial purposes in the U.S. airspace over the next several years.
However, dozens of anti-drone measures enacted by state and local governments and the FAA's slowness to draft rules have complicated matters for those looking to use drones in commercial applications.
Privacy and civil rights groups want Congress to enact laws to prohibit drones from being used for mass surveillance purposes by law enforcement authorities. The groups have consistently warned that drones equipped with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be used to constantly spy on the public.
Since the federal law was passed in February 2012, about 43 states have proposed a total of 130 bills and resolutions seeking limits on drone use. Anti-drone laws have been enacted in 13 states, and another 11 have adopted resolutions seeking some type of restrictions on UAVs.
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