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Major setback for drones and huge fine for owner

When you hear the word "drone," you may start seeing vaguely sinister images in your mind's eye of spy cameras invading your privacy. It's true that military drones in foreign countries have a scary reputation, but here at home, most drone pilots are harmless hobbyists enjoying a fun American pastime.

The reality is that remote-controlled planes and helicopters have been around for a long time. New technology has made them cheaper and easier to obtain and maintain. We've also started calling them "drones." Now that there are more of them in the sky, we're running into complicated issues of safety and regulation.

Today, the National Transportation Safety Board overturned an administrative judge's ruling that dismissed a $10,000 Federal Aviation Administration fine against a drone owner named Raphael Pirker. It was the FAA's first fine against a drone operator. The agency fine was for unauthorized flying, and in this case, it called the flight "careless or reckless."

Here's Raphael Pirker's flight around the University of Virginia campus:

Initially, an administrative judge dismissed the $10,000 fine after ruling FAA regulations from 1981 and 2007 specifically exclude model aircraft. However, in an appeal, the NTSB has now set a precedent: your drone, quadcopter, model aircraft or R/C flying machine is subject to FAA rules for aircraft. Here's a quote from Reuters:

In Tuesday's decision, the NTSB found that current U.S. regulations define aircraft as "any device ... used for flight in the air." That definition, the NTSB said, applies to "any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small."

We don't really know what that means for R/C pilots going forward. Will the FAA begin immediately enforcing its aircraft regulations? Probably not. But there's no way of knowing for sure. The FAA says it's planning to announce proposed new rules that specifically govern model aircraft and drones before the end of the year. Until then, you should be extra careful flying in any populated areas. You don't want to be the next victim of a $10,000 fine.

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