Pirker Case Casts Shadow over Unmanned Systems Conference

 - June 2, 2014, 5:30 AM

Raphael Pirker cast a long shadow over the Unmanned Systems 2014 conference. Pirker’s challenge of an FAA fine for allegedly flying his Ritewing Zephyr recklessly at the University of Virginia came up repeatedly during the annual conference the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) stages, this year in Orlando. Pirker won the first round when an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) rejected the fine; the Board was considering the case on appeal by the FAA as the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry gathered at the Orange County Convention Center.

The Pirker case is emblematic of an industry growing increasingly impatient with the FAA’s regulatory and policy containment of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Called “Trappy” in the radio-controlled, “first-person view” (R/C FPV) community of aerial videographers, and recently known to be running a drone shop in Hong Kong, Pirker ran afoul of the FAA over safety but also because he flew the four-pound, polymer foam construction Zephyr for compensation, which the FAA prohibits. One questioner in Orlando asked Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, why the agency penalized Pirker when a hobbyist can fly a carbon-fiber scale model of the F-16 fighter unfettered–a question that was repeated in different forms throughout the conference. When an attendee from Australia asked Williams if the U.S. risked “losing this industry to countries with more forward-looking regulatory environments,” the room broke into applause.

In a later presentation, Williams rolled a video describing an April 6 incident in which a small unmanned helicopter used to film the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Geraldton, Australia, struck and injured a woman participating in the competition. As he had one week earlier at a small UAS conference in San Francisco, Williams also provided some details on the March 22 near midair between a US Airways CRJ200 and what appeared to be an R/C replica of an F-4 Phantom flying at 2,300 feet near Tallahassee Regional Airport. “The airline pilot said the UAS was so close to the jet that he might have collided with it. Unfortunately the operator of the UAS was never identified,” Williams said. “However, the incident does highlight just one of the reasons why it’s incredibly important for [UAS] detect-and-avoid standards to be developed and right-of-way rules to be obeyed.”

The FAA fined Pirker $10,000 for reckless operation of an unmanned aircraft, including “flying close to an active heliport, under a pedestrian bridge and so close to one person that they had to leap out of the way,” said Williams, who related that the “media’s reporting of this case has not been completely accurate or helpful.” With the FAA’s appeal then pending before the NTSB board, “nothing has changed from a legal standpoint,” he added. “The FAA will continue to enforce its airspace rules on unmanned aircraft.”

Dave Morton, an FAA aviation inspector assigned to Williams’s office, was more outspoken in a breakout session on law enforcement applications of UAS which many policemen attended. “Unfortunately this particular activity has created in the blogosphere and in the media and in lots of other places this idea that the FAA is impotent to do anything about unauthorized operations, which is not true,” he said of the Pirker case. “We are taking enforcement action against those [incidents] that we think are egregious.” Morton said the FAA plans to issue a public notice reaffirming its “oversight authority” of small unmanned aircraft.

Gradual Removal of Restrictions

While the agency frowns on an apparent explosion in unauthorized UAS flights, it is gradually lowering barriers preventing both public and private operation of unmanned aircraft. Last July, the FAA issued restricted-category type certifications to the Insitu ScanEagle and AeroVironment Puma AE, allowing operators to fly them commercially in Alaska. This answered a provision of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act requiring the agency to open remote Arctic airspace to UAS operations.

In Orlando, Williams said the FAA will take advantage of another provision of the 2012 legislation to facilitate further commercial UAS operations. Section 333 of the act, titled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” states that the secretary of Transportation can determine “if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system” before the FAA completes the rulemakingprocess. Williams said that four companies have approached the agency to use UAS for precision agriculture, filmmaking, powerline inspection and industrial flare stack inspection. AIN confirmed that one of those companies is Yamaha Motor USA, which is pursuing both a Section 333 exemption and full type certification of its RMax unmanned agricultural helicopter.

The FAA has authorized small UAS operations in other ways for both commercial and public operations. Lockheed Martin said it has teamed with FourthWing Sensors, of Mankato, Minn., to lease several of its Indago quadcopters to farmers in that state, an application the FAA allowed in a November 2013 letter. The company has also named Detroit Aircraft as an Indago authorized distributor and service center for civil and military markets.

The FAA recently issued a certificate of authorization (COA) to the Mesa County, Colo., public works department to use the Trimble UX5 flying wing for aerial surveys. The county’s Sheriff’s Department has flown unmanned aircraft for operations since 2010 and has COAs for the hand-launched Falcon UAV, Falcon Hover quadcopter and Draganflyer X6 and X4-ES helicopters.

Among other developments at the Unmanned Systems Conference, Northrop Grumman and the University of North Dakota signed a three-year cooperative agreement to offer pilot training using two of the company’s SandShark remotely piloted aircraft trainers. German-owned Service-drone USA named Robotic Skies as its maintenance and repair provider. Service-drone is a manufacturer of multirotor small UAS that in March opened its first location outside Europe in Boulder, Colo. Robotic Skies is a network of FAA Part 145 repair stations that Brad Hayden, a former Aspen Avionics executive, launched in February. Hayden said he has thus far signed more than 40 repair stations nationwide to participate in the network.

AUVSI reported just over 7,000 attendees and nearly 600 exhibitors at this year’s event. The number of exhibitors was about the same, but there were fewer attendees this year than AUVSI reported after last year’s conference, held in Washington, D.C.