FAA Lacks Authority to Ground Small UAVs Used for Commercial Purposes


A victory for a small commercial unmanned aerial vehicle operator demonstrates the Federal Aviation Administration’s struggle to keep pace with new technologies.

On March 6, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) vacated a civil penalty issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) against a commercial user of a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or “drone.” The ALJ found that no promulgated FAA Rules or Federal Aviation Regulations exist that would prohibit small UAVs from operating for commercial purposes — consistent with the long-standing “model aircraft” standards. The decision highlights how commercial operators may exploit the disconnect between the commercial demand for using drones, and the FAA’s slow pace in developing appropriate regulations for commercial UAVs.

Introduction -

The use of small UAVs or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) for commercial purposes may be taking off, regardless of the FAA’s objections. For nearly a decade, the FAA has taken the rigid position that the agency regulates (and thus can ban) the use of all UAVs in the National Airspace. Despite the vast potential of UAVs, the FAA has steadfastly permitted no commercial applications before regulations are promulgated, which would be no earlier than year-end 2015, and probably well after. The FAA’s absolute prohibition against all UAV commercial usage is now at odds with its long-standing 1981 policy that allows “model aircraft” operations.

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