The Federal Aviation Administration finally laid down the legal groundwork for the operation of small drones in February, but as the governmental body showed this week, those laws don’t mean you can just fly unpiloted craft wherever you like. The FAA has proposed its biggest fine ever — $1.9 million — to be levied against aerial photography company SkyPan International for illegal drone flights in the busy airspace above New York and Chicago.
The FAA says that SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized drone flights over urban areas between March 21st, 2012 and December 15th, 2014. The drones involved allegedly lacked a two-way radio, transponder, altitude-reporting equipment, airworthiness certificates and effective registration, while SkyPan itself failed to get a valid Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the flights. The FAA says that of the 65 flights, 43 of those flights reportedly took place in New York’s tightly restricted Class B airspace, and took off without receiving air traffic control clearance to do so.
The FAA criticized irresponsible drone use in August, noting that pilots had already reported more than 650 close calls with small uncrewed craft in the first eight months of 2015 alone — more than double the 238 reports it filed in 2014. But SkyPan has defended its record, telling the National Journal that it has been conducting aerial photography in urban areas for 27 years “in full compliance with published FAA regulations,” and that it was “fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public’s safety, security and privacy.” The company now has 30 days to respond to the FAA.
In a statement released on its website, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said that “flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous.” Huerta noted that the US has “the safest airspace in the world,” but said that “everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”
But SkyPan could argue those rules are far from comprehensive. Congress set a date of September 30th for the FAA to pull together blanket rules that would legalize the use of small drones, but after putting out proposed regulations in February, the aviation administration missed the deadline. It said that it may need until 2017 — or even later — to reach a consensus of opinion. Until then, the FAA has approved more than a thousand individual flights, but the US is still without federal regulations, frustrating both hobbyist drone operators and companies such as Amazon who plan to use drones to deliver items to customers.