Charlottesville drone vid at the center of landmark FAA challenge

A screenshot from Raphael Pirker's 2011 drone video shot at UVA. A screenshot from Raphael Pirker’s 2011 drone video shot at UVA.

Charlottesville made headlines around the country last year when it became the first municipality in the U.S. to pass legislation limiting the use of unmanned aircraft. Now the city is in the drone spotlight again—but this time because of an aerial video at the center of a landmark court decision that opened a legal door for commercial drone use across the country.

In 2011, an entrepreneur and remote-control plane enthusiast named Raphael Pirker used a drone to film on Grounds for a UVA promotional video (all the footage is on YouTube), according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. He was slapped with a $10,000 fine by the Federal Aviation Administration for operating his aircraft recklessly and without a license. Pirker fought back, claiming he’d used the foam airplane safely and—more significantly—that the U.S. was unlawfully limiting commercial drone use. 

Back in March, a federal judge agreed with him, tossing out the fine and punching a big legal hole in the FAA’s efforts to curtail the private use of drones.

The latest: The FAA has appealed the ruling, according to Forbes, filing a brief that claims the judge erred in his determination that Pirker’s plane wasn’t an aircraft and thus wasn’t subject to federal aviation rules.

The issue is a sticky one. The FAA has been spotty in its enforcement of drone use, as the WSJ piece points out. For the most part, it’s ignored use by hobbyists, but has recently cracked down on people like Pirker looking to make a buck with the technology. By doing so, a former FAA lawyer told the author of the Forbes article, the agency created legal confusion. What’s coming next—a legal vacuum? Straightforward regulations on all use of unmanned aircraft, no matter how small?—remains to be seen.