Catch Up With the Huerta v. Pirker UAS Case
Huerta v. Pirker involves a 2011 flight by Raphael Pirker, a Swiss man, who used a remotely powered glider to take publicity pictures for a firm that was under contract to the University of Virginia. Michael P. Huerta is the FAA administrator.
The FAA, a couple of years later, levied a $10,000 fine on Pirker, claiming he had operated an UAS for commercial purposes, which is an activity that the FAA says is not permitted under the current regulations for operating flying objects in U.S. airspace. In its brief, the FAA alleged that Pirker conducted the flight as “pilot-in-command” of a UAS for compensation, and thus commercial purposes. It also alleged that he had operated the UAS in an unsafe manner. Pirker appealed the fine, claiming the FAA did not have regulatory authority over the operation of “model aircraft” operations. The case was assigned to an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board to make a decision. The judge's decision was issued on March 6, 2014, in Pirker's favor to dismiss the fine.
Many proponents of commercial UAS are celebrating this as a victory, however, the FAA is appealing the ruling.
The decision issued March 6, 2014, by Patrick G. Geraghty, granted Pirker’s motion and set aside the fine. The judge’s reasoning included:
- The aircraft Pirker flew is more likely a model aircraft, and by its own advisory circulars, the FAA excludes model aircraft from the more generic term of aircraft. Thus many of the allegations about improper and unsafe operation of the aircraft that the FAA made in its complaint don’t apply.
- Geraghty further noted that the FAA doesn’t actually define or even talk about UAS in any of its regulatory documents. All mention of UAS is only in advisories, primarily written for internal FAA guidance, and as the documents themselves state, not intended to be regulatory. Thus his decision reflects his observation that the FAA can’t take an action against an operator of a type of vehicle that the FAA hasn’t even officially recognized.
- The judge also emphasized that had there been rules or regulations in place (that required mandatory compliance) regarding model aircraft or UAS or where UAS were defined as “aircraft,” then the FAA didn’t follow its required course (as required in the U.S. Code) of issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), soliciting public comment for 30 days, and then issuing the proper rule or regulation.