Appeals Court Dismisses Challenge of FAA's Drone Order

 - July 21, 2014, 9:51 AM

A federal appeals court has dismissed the case a Texas non-profit search and rescue organization brought against the FAA after the agency ordered it to stop using a model aircraft fitted with a camera to assist in searches. Both parties claimed an advantage from the decision.

On July 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the FAA’s motion to dismiss a petition for review Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search & Recovery filed on April 21. The search organization contended the FAA had no regulatory basis to prohibit it from using a model aircraft—in this case, a Spectra SkyCamo flying wing—operated by a volunteer on its behalf.

The appeals court found that the FAA’s order, which an inspector communicated by email, “did not represent the consummation of the agency’s decisionmaking process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences…[R]ather, given the absence of any identified legal consequences flowing from the challenged email, this case falls within the usual rule that this court lacks authority to review a claim where ‘an agency merely expresses its view of what the law requires of a party.’”

In a press release, the FAA said the court’s ruling in its favor “has no bearing” on its authority to regulate unmanned aircraft systems. The agency explained that it approves flights of unmanned aircraft for search and rescue and disaster relief operations by issuing certificates of authorization (COAs) to government agencies. “We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor,” the FAA said.

Attorney Brendan Schulman, who represents Texas EquuSearch, said the court’s dismissal of the organization’s petition for review “means there will be no decision on the underlying legal questions.” Nevertheless, the ruling “achieves the desired result of clarifying that Texas EquuSearch is not legally required to halt its humanitarian drone operations…Therefore, the organization and its volunteers plan to resume their use of this life-saving technology immediately.”