The US Federal Aviation Administration faces a second legal challenge
over its ban on non-recreational flying of unmanned aircraft – and the
first coming from a non-profit organization dedicated to searching for
Texas-based EquuSearch filed a lawsuit in the US Court of Appeals in
Washington DC, asking the court to over-turn a two-month-old FAA order
prohibiting the non-profit organization from using unmanned air vehicles
(UAVs) as part of its search efforts.
“The FAA order should be set aside because it is unlawful, arbitrary,
capricious, an abuse of discretion and not otherwise in accordance with
the law,” wrote Brendan Schulman, the attorney representing EquuSearch
and volunteer Gene Robinson.
The case was filed about six weeks after an administrative law judge
for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled in favor of
another Schulman client – Raphael Pirker.
That decision challenged the FAA’s move to classify any UAV flown for
commercial purposes as identical to Part 91 category manned aircraft.
Pirker was fined $10,000 for operating an aircraft recklessly, since he
was not a licensed pilot.
ccording to the FAA’s policy, the same UAV flown by Pirker for
recreational reasons would be considered a “model aircraft” and subject
to only a few restrictions, such as to avoid airspace near airports and
flying above 400ft.
The FAA has since appealed the ruling in the Pirker case to the
board’s appointed members.
The new lawsuit filed by Schulman on behalf of EquuSearch seeks to
overturn the FAA’s ban on non-recreational UAV flying, even if the
purpose is for humanitarian reasons rather than profit-seeking activity.
EquuSearch has been using UAVs to help search for missing people
since 2005. The UAVs are flown under 400ft and operated only by unpaid
volunteers, according to the lawsuit. But the FAA ordered the non-profit
organization to stop using UAVs in an order dated 21 February, calling
the flights “illegal” under the FAA’s rules.
In Schulman’s legal complaint, he argues that the FAA has not
formally issued regulations concerning small UAVs, and is relying on
unenforceable policy statements to order EquuSearch to stop flying the
The FAA has been working to define regulations for UAVs since 2007.
The agency has a deadline to initiate a rulemaking process on small UAVs
below 24.9kg (55lb) by the end of this year.
The FAA responds that it has a process for allowing public agencies
to fly UAVs in commercial airspace called a certificate of authorization
or waiver (COA), meaning that Equu-Search could be added to a COA if
named in a public agency's application.
However, the FAA has granted less than 550 COAs as of last December.
"The FAA is reviewing the appeal," a spokeswoman says. "The agency
approves emergency certificates of authorization (COAs) for natural
disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent
circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours. We are not aware that any
government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency
naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor."