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Are Commercial Drones Legal Now?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 10, 2014 12:04 PM

Are commercial drones legal now, after an administrative law judge struck down the FAA's rules on drones?

In an appeal over a $10,000 fine to a videographer who used a drone to make an ad, a federal administrative judge ruled Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration's rule prohibiting commercial drones from being used was not valid, reports CNN.

So as the dust settles on this case, can businesses legally use commercial drones?

Commercial Drones Before Ruling

The status of commercial drones for businesses has always been on somewhat shaky legal ground. Amazon last year unveiled its plan for Amazon Prime Air, a commercial drone-based delivery service, but there were worries about FAA regulations.

Amazon wasn't the only one testing the waters skies of commercial drone laws. In one notable example, Minnesota-based Lakemaid Beer was experimenting with delivering beer to consumers via drone on the state's frozen lakes. According to NPR, the small business got a more direct message from the FAA that their commercial drone plans broke several regulations.

In order for any business to use a drone -- called unmanned aircraft systems or "UAS" by the FAA -- for any business purpose, the FAA required that it be certified as "airworthy." Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, the FAA is only issuing airworthiness certificates to businesses for research or experimental applications -- not for commercial purposes.

But that may have all gone out the window with Thursday's ruling.

FAA Appeals Drone Ruling

Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled that since the FAA didn't follow the proper procedure for implementing its drone rules, they weren't valid. This means one thing for certain: Raphael Pirker, the man who appealed his fine to the NTSB, does not owe the FAA $10,000 for flying a model airplane with a camera for commercial purposes.

The FAA, however, has issued a notice Friday that it is appealing Judge Geraghty's decision to the full NTSB -- a step that "has the effect of staying the decision until the Board rules," according to an FAA statement.

The FAA is particularly "concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground," The statement says.

Whether the FAA's appeal over its commercial drone rules will be successful is still up in the air.

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