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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4385) }}

What We're Following See More »
Airbag Recalls Target 12 Million Automobiles
20 minutes ago

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified on Friday the makes and models of 12 million cars and motorcycles that have been recalled because of defective air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata. The action includes 4.3 million Chryslers; 4.5 million Hondas; 1.6 million Toyotas; 731,000 Mazdas; 402,000 Nissans; 383,000 Subarus; 38,000 Mitsubishis; and 2,800 Ferraris. ... Analysts have said it could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow."

Secret Service Disciplines 41 Agents Over Chaffetz Leak
51 minutes ago

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says 41 Secret Service agents have been disciplined in the fallout of an investigation over the agency's leak of personnel files. The leaker, who has resigned, released records showing that Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz—who was leading an investigation of Secret Service security lapses—had applied for a job at the agency years before. The punishments include reprimands and suspension without pay. "Like many others I was appalled by the episode reflected in the Inspector General’s report, which brought real discredit to the Secret Service," said Johnson.

Romney Talks Cost of His Futile Anti-Trump Fight
2 hours ago

Mitt Romney spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his decision to challenge Donald Trump. “Friends warned me, ‘Don’t speak out, stay out of the fray,’ because criticizing Mr. Trump will only help him by giving him someone else to attack. They were right. I became his next target, and the incoming attacks have been constant and brutal.” Still, "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”

Puerto Rico Relief Stalled on the Hill
3 hours ago

"A bill to help Puerto Rico handle its $70 billion debt crisis is facing an uncertain future in the Senate. No Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while some are actively fighting it. ... On the Republican side, senators say they’re hopeful to pass a bill but don’t know if they can support the current legislation — which is expected to win House approval given its backing from leaders in that chamber."

Congress Slow-walking Zika Legislation
3 hours ago

"Congress abandoned the Capitol Thursday for an almost two-week break without addressing how to combat Zika, even as public health officials issue dire warnings about the spread of the mosquito-driven virus with summer approaching. ... Instead of racing to fund efforts to thwart a potential health crisis, lawmakers are treating the Zika debate like regular legislation, approving Thursday the establishment of a House-Senate committee to hammer out differences in their competing bills."