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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