According to a recent agency press release, the FAA on Tuesday issued a $1.9 million fine for Chicago-based drone operator, SkyPan, for allegedly “endangering the safety of our airspace” during unauthorized flights over New York City and Chicago. The FAA claims SkyPan’s 65 offending flights took place between March 2012 and December 2014 “in some of our most congested airspace and heavily populated cities, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules,” and that, “These operations were illegal and not without risk.”
Forty-three of the alleged incursions took place in the New York Class B airspace. In addition, the agency says SkyPan flew its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) without equipment required for Class B airspace operations, including a two-way radio and a transponder with altitude reporting capability. FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta said, “Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” noting that “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”
This civil penalty action comes in the midst of the agency’s work to compile a comprehensive set of rules for the commercial operation of UAVs in U.S. airspace. Until those regulations are in place, the FAA will continue to issue permits to UAV operators on a case by case basis. About 1,800 such permits have been granted to date. However, with the holiday season rapidly approaching, retailers estimate adding approximately one-million new UAVs to the civilian market before the end of the year. Perhaps in the near future, the FAA will be issuing additional large civil penalties to ignorant drone operators more for shock and deterrence value than anything else.
The regulatory landscape governing unmanned aerial vehicles is unsettled and largely uncharted territory. We recommend that all operators and potential operators seek the advice of experienced aviation counsel before conducting flights with any unmanned devices.