Search and Rescue Organization Challenges FAA on UAVs

 - April 23, 2014, 11:52 AM
The FAA ordered Texas EquuSearch to stop using the Spectra SkyCamo. (Photo: RP Flight Systems)

A nonprofit search-and-rescue organization has asked a federal court to review an FAA order that it stop using a model aircraft to assist in its search efforts. Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search & Recovery, based in Dickinson, Texas, filed a petition for review of the order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on April 21. The suit is the second legal challenge this year of the FAA’s regulation of small unmanned aircraft systems.

According to a copy of the petition, the FAA on February 21 ordered EquuSearch and Eugene Robinson, a volunteer who operated the Spectra SkyCamo for the search team, to stop using the radio-controlled aircraft. The petition asserts that the agency has no regulatory basis to prohibit the operation of a model aircraft. A policy memorandum the FAA issued in 2007, which allows public agencies to fly unmanned aircraft via a certificate of authorization, but disallows their use “by persons or companies for business purposes,” does not apply in this case, it says.

“The distinction that the FAA now draws between Texas EquuSearch’s use of this technology, and that of a hobbyist, is entirely arbitrary and capricious,” the petition states. “[T]here is no basis whatsoever, in law or policy, to prohibit the operation of a model aircraft for humanitarian search and rescue activities.”

The Spectra SkyCamo is a hand-launched “flying wing” made of thermoplastic, carbon fiber and fiberglass. It weighs 1.97 pounds empty and four pounds with a camera payload, according to manufacturer RP Flight Systems, a company Robinson founded. His non-profit firm, RP Search Services, operates the aircraft for EquuSearch.

Last month, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) administrative judge dismissed a $10,000 fine the FAA levied against an individual, Raphael Pirker, for using a flying wing aircraft to video the grounds of the University of Virginia for compensation. In that case, which the FAA is appealing to the full NTSB board, the judge found that the agency has issued guidance but no enforceable regulation governing model aircraft operations.

Both Pirker and Texas EquuSearch have been represented by attorney Brendan Schulman of the firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.

The FAA said it is reviewing the EquuSearch appeal. “The agency approves emergency certificates of authorization (COAs) for natural disaster relief, search-and-rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours,” it said. “We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor.”