Chinese Manufacturer DJI Hires Prominent 'Drone Lawyer'

 - July 15, 2015, 12:45 PM
Attorney Brendan Schulman won the first round of a landmark legal challenge after the FAA fined Raphael Pirker. (Photo: Bill Carey)

China-based drone manufacturer DJI has named attorney Brendan Schulman, known for challenging the first civil penalty levied against a drone operator in the U.S., as its vice president of policy and legal affairs. He joins a list of other experts who have been hired by makers or aspiring users of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

As an attorney with the firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in New York City, Schulman represented Raphael Pirker in appealing a $10,000 fine the FAA assessed the Swiss citizen for operating a flying wing at the University of Virginia—the agency’s first civil penalty against a drone operator. Pirker won the first round when an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board ruled in his favor in March 2014; however, the NTSB board later reversed the decision. In January this year, Pirker settled with the FAA for $1,100 without admitting to any violation.

DJI, which is based in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, abutting Hong Kong, is expected to become the first billion-dollar manufacturer of small consumer and professional drones. The company announced Schulman’s appointment on July 15, noting that one of his “key initiatives” was to propose to the FAA a micro UAS category that would allow commercial operation of drones weighing three pounds or less. The FAA has provided such a category in the small UAS proposed rulemaking it released in February, which could be issued in final form early next year.

“The next few years will be critical in setting the direction for unmanned aerial regulations, so we need a policy executive who shares our vision for UAS operation that is both accessible and safe,” said DJI founder and CEO Frank Wang. “Brendan is the perfect fit to drive forward this vision, which will enable our customers to expand the use of aerial technology for creative and innovative purposes.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Small UAV Coalition, a lobbying group that includes DJI, Amazon, Google, GoPro, Parrot and 3D Robotics among its members, offered congratulations on Twitter, saying Schulman “will be a tenacious leader for the company.”

Schulman joins a number of other experts who have been snapped up by the drone industry. Amazon, which aspires to deliver small packages by drone, in September hired former Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) counsel Ben Gielow as its senior manager of public policy. In March, the online retailer appointed Sean Cassidy, a former Alaska Airlines pilot and first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, as director of partner relationships. Last August, Google hired David Vos, a prominent technology entrepreneur and former Rockwell Collins senior director, to lead its Project Wing effort to deliver packages.

Francis "Chip" Sheller, former Aerospace Industries Association vice president of communications and research, in April became vice president of communications and public affairs for Aurora Flight Sciences. Former AUVSI executive vice president Gretchen West, now a “commercial drone industry advocate,” worked until recently for San Francisco commercial software start-up DroneDeploy.

As a consultant, John McGraw, former deputy director of the FAA’s flight standards service, assisted several video production companies backed by the Motion Picture Association of America in applying for the first exemptions the FAA granted to small drone operators in September. A LinkIn profile for Jim Williams, who retired last month as the FAA’s lead UAS executive, indicates that he is seeking an executive position in the industry.