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Search and rescue group sues FAA over drone use

Jaikumar Vijayan | April 23, 2014
A battle for rights to U.S. airspace is brewing between the Federal Aviation Administration and organizations looking to operate small, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for commercial and other purposes.

Meanwhile, the FAA is defending the pace of its rule making process, arguing that finding ways to add drones to the busiest, most complex airspace in the world is a huge challenge.

Drone supporters maintain that privacy and other concerns are overblown and point to a rapid proliferation of commercial drones in Europe and other parts of the world. Many, including Texas EquuSearch, maintain that the small drones it plans to use are essentially model aircraft, which have been permitted for decades.

In its lawsuit, Texas EquuSearch, described its UAV as a model aircraft weighing less than five pounds and using the same kind of radio control system used by hobbyists. The non-profit said the aircraft had been invaluable in locating missing persons and in helping guide searchers over rough and dangerous terrain.

The complaint contends that the FAA had no legal basis for ordering Texas EquuSearch to stop operating the aircraft. An 2007 FAA policy memorandum bars individuals and organizations from operating model aircraft for commercial or business purposes without proper authorization. However, that prohibition was articulated merely as a policy statement and never as a formal rule, the non-profit maintains.

Even if the policy statement was binding, the FAA's order is still unjust because Texas EquuSearch has never operated drones for commercial gain, said Brendan Schulman, a lawyer with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLC, the law firm representing the non-profit.

"The argument is that there is no valid regulation that makes the humanitarian use of a model aircraft illegal," Schulman said in an email to Computerworld. "Our argument is that no license is needed because people have been free to operate model aircraft for decades without any regulatory oversight."

A FAA spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing Texas EquuSearch's appeal of its order.

"The agency approves emergency Certificates of Authorization (COAs) for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours," she said via email. "We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor" in search and rescue missions, she added.

 

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