Our region is home to companies big and small that design, build and operate civilian unmanned aerial vehicles – drones.

Though these have nothing to do with the military drones we hear so much about, they often get lopped into the same category. That’s caused some problems for experienced enthusiasts and licensed pilots who are doing nothing wrong, yet find themselves under attack by the federal government.

Over the past several years, my firm has tried to help these people who have been threatened and discouraged by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from using their model drones for any commercial or business purposes.

The administration has called and sent letters to these entrepreneurs, demanding they “cease and desist.” It claims safety concerns are at the core of its actions. But that feigned explanation is undermined by the fact that the exact same model can be flown recreationally by a 12-year-old for the exact same purposes. If a certificated operator charges a fee, though, the FAA claims the flight violates its ban.

Here’s what the FAA doesn’t want you to know: There’s currently no federal rule or regulation prohibiting the recreational or commercial use of model drones. Instead, the FAA cites internal policies from 2005 and 2007 to back up its alleged ban.

The targeted entrepreneurs here are exceptionally qualified and experienced to operate their model drones. They’ve collectively lost millions in revenue over the past several years, forgoing use of the models because of the FAA’s interference. As they sit on the sidelines, less experienced model drone operators and non-certified pilots have set up their own commercial businesses and are gaining a foothold both locally and nationally.

That backdrop is what makes a national case involving some San Diego drone operators so important. Administrator v. Raphael Pirker represents the first time in history the FAA has actually pursued a $10,000 civil assessment – a fine – against a small drone operator. Pirker was hired by a company to take aerial photos and video of the University of Virginia campus back in 2011. In this pending case, the FAA claimed Pirker violated the administration’s so-called “ban” on commercial drone flights, and said he operated the model recklessly and endangered the lives or property of others.

Pirker fought back. National Transportation Safety Board administrative law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that the models are not “aircraft” as defined by federal regulation and dismissed the FAA’s fine. Geraghty also said there are no enforceable federal rules or FAA regulations applicable to these models.

The FAA appealed those rulings to the full NTSB panel of judges, essentially claiming the administration controls all airspace and everything designed for flight. So that would presumably include paper airplanes, Frisbees, footballs and thrown rocks.

Our clients filed a brief with the NTSB in support of Pirker and the judge’s rulings.

Based on the absence of actual federal law, the FAA did not have jurisdiction over Pirker’s flight, nor does it currently have jurisdiction over the commercial and business models here in San Diego, as long as they stay below 500 feet above ground and avoid airport traffic areas.

The NTSB is expected to make this case a priority on its docket. Meanwhile, my clients are available for hire.

Michael Curran is a practicing civil litigation and aviation attorney as well as a professional pilot and flight instructor. He provides legal and aviation consulting to clients and other attorneys. Curran’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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