Pirker, FAA Settle Penalty for Alleged Unsafe Drone Operation

 - January 22, 2015, 7:44 PM

The drone pilot who in 2013 incurred the first fine the FAA levied for alleged reckless operation of an unmanned aircraft has settled with the agency without admitting to any violation. On January 22, Swiss national Raphael Pirker and his attorney Brendan Schulman announced that Pirker will pay $1,100 to settle the charges, a fraction of the FAA’s original $10,000 civil penalty.

The FAA’s June 27, 2013, enforcement action against Pirker for operating a Ritewing Zephyr at the University of Virginia in October 2011 was dismissed by an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last March, calling into question on the agency’s authority to regulate either model or unmanned aircraft. However, the full NTSB board in November overturned the judge’s decision on appeal by the FAA, in effect confirming the agency’s contention that Pirker’s aircraft was an unmanned aircraft subject to regulation.

The two-page settlement agreement, signed by Schulman and FAA supervisory attorney Brendan Kelly, states that Pirker "does not admit to any allegation of fact or law" contained in the FAA's assessment order, and that he settled “to avoid the expense of litigation.”

In a lengthy statement that came with the settlement document attached, Pirker said: “We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations. The decision to settle the case was not an easy one, but the length of time that would be needed to pursue further proceedings and appeals, and the FAA’s new reliance on a statute that post-dates Raphael’s flight, have diminished the utility of the case to assist the commercial drone industry in its regulatory struggle.”

The statement refers to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, in which Congress instructed the FAA to open the national airspace system to commercial drone operations by different means. The FAA did not immediately respond to Pirker’s announcement, which was made late on January 22.