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Ruling the sky

Drone popularity is outpacing the ability to regulate commercial use; a February draft of FAA rules doesn’t address hobby use


By Arthur Holland Michel
By Dan Gettinger
Published: April 14, 2015
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On Oct. 17, 2011, Raphael “Trappy” Pirker launched a Zephyr propeller-driven “flying wing” drone into the afternoon air over the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. In a flight recorded by a camera mounted on the nose of the drone, Pirker flew an exhilarating course through the campus, cresting barely over the tops of buildings and flying through a tunnel. Although there were no mishaps, Pirker, an expert drone operator known for his daredevil flying, swooped so low at one point that a by-stander had to jump out of the way. 

The video, which Pirker made for the UVA medical school, was breathtaking; the Federal Aviation Administration was unimpressed. Citing “reckless” flying, the agency levied a $10,000 fine against Pirker. After a federal judge ruled the FAA had no authority to fine Pirker because the drone was not an aircraft, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the judge’s decision, alleging that a drone is indeed an aircraft and therefore subject to the strict rules of national airspace. In January, Pirker and his attorney, Brendan Schulman, announced that the hobbyist had settled with the FAA, agreeing to pay a fine of $1,100.

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