Saturday, October 24, 2015

FAA Proposes $1.9 Million Fine for Unauthorized Drone Use - Part One

On October 6, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  announced the largest civil penalty the FAA has proposed against an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) operator for endangering the safety of the U.S. National Airspace. 

The FAA proposed a $1.9 million civil penalty against SkyPan International, Inc. of Chicago. Between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, SkyPan allegedly conducted 65 unauthorized commercial UAS flights over various locations in New York City and Chicago between March 21, 2012 and Dec. 15, 2014.  The flights involved aerial photography.  Of those, 43 flew in the highly restricted New York Class B airspace.  These unauthorized operations took place in some of the country’s most congested airspace and heavily populated cities.  These unauthorized operations violated airspace regulations and various UAS operating rules, the FAA alleges. The FAA noted in its press release that the operations which were the subject of the FAA’s enforcement letter were illegal and not without risk.  

The FAA’s press release quoted FAA Administrator Michael Huerta .  “Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said Huerta.  “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”  In an interview with National Public Radio, Huerta said the proposed fine is designed to send a message that action will be taken against those who do not safely operate unmanned aircraft in compliance with FAA regulations. 

SkyPan allegedly operated the 43 flights in the New York Class B airspace without receiving an air traffic control clearance to access it as required by 14 C.F.R. §91.131   (Operations in Class B airspace.)   Additionally, the agency alleged the aircraft was not equipped with a two-way radio transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment as required by 14 C.F.R. §91.131 and §91.215 (a).

The FAA further alleges that on all 65 flights, the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate which is generally required by 49 U.S.C. § 44711(a)(1)  and effective aircraft registration as required by 49 U.S.C. § 44101(a).  In addition, SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization issued by the FAA for the subject operations.  SkyPan operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property, the FAA alleges.  See 49 U.S.C. § 44701 et seq. and 49 U.S.C. § 40103 et seq.  
SkyPan has 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency.

The regulatory implications of the FAA’s proposed fine are substantial.  These ramifications will be examined in the second part of this post.

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