The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate a remote-control aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled November 18.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which hears appeals of FAA enforcement actions, ruled that small drones are a type of aircraft and fall under existing FAA rules.

The case stemmed from a $10,000 fine the FAA imposed on Raphael Pirker, an aerial photographer, for operating his Ritewing Zephyr in a reckless manner on the University of Virginia campus in 2011. Pirker allegedly flew the drone, which weighed less than 5 pounds, at "extremely low" altitudes, including under a pedestrian bridge and directly at a person, causing the individual to duck out of the way. He had been hired to make photos and videos of the campus.

Pirker appealed the fine, saying his aircraft was effectively no different than a model aircraft and therefore not subject to regulations that apply to manned aircraft. An NTSB administrative law judge sided with him in March, saying the FAA hasn't issued any regulations specifically for drones and therefore can't determine their use.

The FAA appealed the decision to the NTSB, which ruled that the definition of an aircraft is very broad.

"An 'aircraft' is any 'device' 'used for flight in the air.' This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small," the NTSB said. The board sent the case back to the judge to decide if Pirker's drone was operated recklessly.

The decision may strengthen the FAA's position as it tries to cope with a surge in use of unmanned aircraft.

"It's a huge win for the FAA, and signals it's not going to be the Wild West for drones, but a careful, orderly, safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system," Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA general counsel, was quoted by the AP as saying.

Pirker's attorney, Brendan Schulman, was quoted as saying that the NTSB ruling "is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to a single aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation."

"The more significant question of whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law was not addressed in the decision," he said. Several cases challenging the FAA's ban on commercial drone operations are pending in federal district court in Washington.

More Resources:

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