Blog: Trapping “Trappy”; the FAA’s Attempt to Regulate Model Aircrafts

by Laura Bedson, Associate Symposium and Survey Editor


Say it isn’t so!  The days of unregulated model airplane flying may well be behind us, particularly if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has anything to say about it.  As the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones, as they are more commonly known, has literally skyrocketed in recent years, the FAA has gone to work crafting laws geared towards regulating the use of these devices.

The potential loopholes in these new regulations were pointed out in a recent case that came out of Charlottesville, Virginia.  Back in October of 2011, Raphael Pirker piloted a $130 foam glider above the University of Virginia’s Medical Center in the hopes of capturing aerial footage of the school for advertisements.[1]  Despite this seemingly innocent motive, the FAA came down hard on Mr.Pirker for operating a UAS or drone without obtaining prior authorization from the FAA.  As a result, the FAA imposed a $10,000 civil penalty on Mr.Pirker for operating this commercial drone.  The FAA’s complaint alleged that Mr.Pirker had carelessly operated the drone in a manner that potentially endangered life and property.

To someone such as myself, Mr.Pirker seems like an innocent, model airplane enthusiast who got mixed up in this emerging area of law.  That is not the case.  After doing some research, I learned that Mr.Pirker, aka “Trappy” is a 29-year-old “aerial anarchist”[2] who has been on the FAA’s list of least favorite people for a few years now.  He has taken videos of the Statue of Liberty, French Alps, and Costa Concordia using the small model aircrafts.[3]  It wasn’t until he arrived on UVA’s campus to take videos of the MedicalSchool however, that the FAA was able to get its hands on him. 

Leaping at the opportunity to make an example of “Tappy” and push through model aircraft regulation, the FAA pursued the case by arguing that model aircrafts were covered under its regulations, and even suggested that  model airplanes should be classified as drones.  Currently, the FAA defines a UAS as the device flown by a pilot “via a ground control system, or autonomously through use of an on-board computer”.[4]  Based on this basic definition, Mr.Priker could have been considered to have been operating a UAS and thus in violation of not obtaining prior authorization per FAA rules.

            Despite the FAA’s arguments that Mr.Priker was recklessly operating this commercial drone in a manner that endangered human life and property, a National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) administrative judge was not convinced.  In the first case of its kind, the judge dismissed the FAA’s case against Mr.Priker.[5]  The Judge held that Mr. Pirker was not operating a drone, or what the FAA traditionally considers to be a drone, but instead, merely a model airplane, which is a device that is not subject to FAA regulation and enforcement.[6] 

            This decision and the arguments from both parties will likely prove to be more monumental than we may think, particularly because the holding perfectly coincides with newly publicized FAA restrictions regarding the commercial use of drones.  The FAA, for some time (since 2007), has banned the commercial use of model aircrafts and this decision ultimately makes that policy unenforceable.[7]  Unsurprisingly the FAA has appealed the ruling, which means that the case will now be brought before the full NTSB board for a ruling.  While there is no guarantee as to how the full board will rule, there is no question that drones are here to stay and cases such as this are just the beginning of a long race to regulate these aircrafts.

[1] Mike M. Ahlers, Pilot wins case against FAA over commercial drone flight, CNN U.S. (Mar. 6, 2014, 10:07 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/06/us/drone-pilot-case-faa/.

[2] Jason Koebler, Drones Could Be Coming to American Skies Sooner Than You Think, Politico Magazine (Jan. 28, 2014), http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/drones-faa-lawsuit-coming-to-american-skies-102754.html#.UyHwwvldWSo.

[3] Id.

[4] Unmanned Aircraft (UAS) Questions and Answers, Federal Aviation Administration (July 26, 2013, 12:29 PM),  http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/uas_faq/#Qn1.

[5] Ahlers, supra note 1.

[6] Ahlers, supra note 1. 

[7] Ahlers, supra note 1.

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