Judge: Feds Can’t Stop Your Drone Delivery

Are beer-by-drone orders now legal?

National Journal
Dustin Volz
March 7, 2014, 5:56 a.m.

An ad­min­is­trat­ive judge ruled late Thursday that the gov­ern­ment does not pos­sess clear au­thor­ity to ban the com­mer­cial use of drones in the U.S., a de­cision that could have mo­nu­ment­al rami­fic­a­tions for the bud­ding in­dustry — and im­me­di­ately al­low the beer-by-drone de­liv­er­ies many have been wait­ing for.

The de­cision from Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board Judge Patrick Ger­aghty as­serts that doc­u­ments cited by the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion to jus­ti­fy its drone ban were meant for in­tern­al use by of­fi­cials or failed to com­ply with prop­er rule-mak­ing guidelines.

Ger­aghty also said the agency’s ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions on air­craft do not en­com­pass small aer­i­al sys­tems, mean­ing that com­mer­cial drone use could be con­sidered leg­al im­me­di­ately.

The case, Pirk­er v. Huerta, in­volved a Swiss drone op­er­at­or who was fined $10,00 for reck­lessly pi­lot­ing a drone dur­ing the film­ing of a com­mer­cial for the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia. Though the FAA has sent nu­mer­ous or­ders to cease drone op­er­a­tions, Raphael Pirk­er was the first to be hit with a fine for vi­ol­at­ing the ban.

Drone evan­gel­ists shouldn’t rush to cel­eb­rate too soon, however. The de­cision can still be ap­pealed to the full Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board and a fed­er­al judge, mean­ing the start-and-stop in­dustry may have to con­tin­ue to wait be­fore clear, defin­it­ive guid­ance is provided by au­thor­it­ies.

But some drone en­tre­pren­eurs aren’t wait­ing for the dust to settle. The FAA told a Wis­con­sin brew­ery and fish­ing-lure com­pany Janu­ary it couldn’t use drones to de­liv­er six-packs of beer to ice fish­er­men toil­ing away on a Min­nesota lake. Though ice fish­ing sea­son is over, the busi­ness is now think­ing about how else it can use its drones to at­tract some at­ten­tion.

“I didn’t real­ize this de­cision was go­ing on,” said Jack Supple, pres­id­ent of Lake­maid Beer. “But I am go­ing to con­tact my [drone] op­er­at­or to see if we can do some tests today or to­mor­row.”

Be­fore Thursday’s rul­ing, the FAA had re­cently be­gun con­sid­er­ing case-by-case waivers for cer­tain com­mer­cial uses of drones for spe­cif­ic in­dus­tries, such as ag­ri­cul­ture. The agency said Thursday it was still re­view­ing Ger­aghty’s de­cision, a po­s­i­tion the drone lobby also struck.

In­terest in the end­less pos­sib­il­it­ies of com­mer­cial drones soared late last year, after Amazon kicked off the hol­i­day shop­ping sea­son with a demon­stra­tion of a test de­liv­ery drone on 60 Minutes.

In Novem­ber, the FAA re­leased a road map de­tail­ing its five-year goals for drone in­teg­ra­tion. The agency said that it ex­pec­ted 7,500 un­manned air­craft to dot the skies with­in that in­ter­val, and that 30,000 could take flight by 2025.

The FAA was sched­uled to set new drone rules by Septem­ber 2015, when it had hoped to de­vel­op a clear plan to safely in­teg­rate the tech­no­logy in­to com­mer­cial air­space. But last month fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors told Con­gress the agency likely wouldn’t be ready to fully in­teg­rate by that tar­get, fol­low­ing a pat­tern of missed dead­lines set by Con­gress.

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