Court Decides That the FAA Can Enforce Its Aircraft Regulations for Drones

A small quadcopter like this could soon be subject to the same regulations as a Boeing 747.

Photo by Jean Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board—a federal agency that evaluates aviation accidents—held that the Federal Aviation Administration should be able to regulate small unmanned aircraft, like drones or model planes.

The FAA was appealing a lower-court ruling, which held that a Swiss pilot named Raphael “Trappy” Pirker did not have to pay a $10,000 fine imposed by the FAA for “reckless flight” at the University of Virginia, because his drone wasn’t an “aircraft” under FAA regulations. Since the agency has strict rules about reckless aircraft operation, allowing for blanket regulation of small drones could lead to a total ban of unmanned devices. (Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, has appeared on the New America Foundation’s DroneU podcast to talk about issues surrounding FAA regulation of small and/or autonomous aircraft.)

If the FAA just flat out banned drones, though, people would probably flip out, so it’s more likely that the agency would use the ruling to regulate drones in higher-risk areas like over cities and near airports.

Former FAA general counsel Kenneth Quinn told NBC News, “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.”

On the other hand, Peter Sachs, a Connecticut lawyer and founder of the Drone Pilots Association told Motherboard, “With this decision, the NTSB has declared model aircraft, paper airplanes and even children’s toys to be ‘aircraft,’ subject to the same regulations as 747s, which ignores entirely the fact that for decades none has ever been treated as such … I don’t think that’s what Congress ever intended or that common sense and logic support today’s NTSB’s decision.”

Lots of things could happen next—Pirker could appeal, for example—but this decision is certainly a step backward for drone enthusiasts who want to roam the skies.