NTSB sides with FAA in fight over drone definition

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is siding with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a fight over whether drones can legally be considered aircrafts under existing federal plane regulations. 

The FAA appealed an NTSB administrative law judge ruling that likened drones to model airplanes in a dismissal of a $10,000 fine the aviation agency attempted to levy against Raphael Pirker, who the FAA said operated a drone recklessly near the University of Virginia campus in 2011. 

Pirker argued that the FAA’s rules do not apply to drones yet because the agency has not finalized a specific set of regulations for the new technology that Congress has mandated it finish by 2015. 

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The NTSB sided with the FAA on the definition of a drone as an aircraft, but it stayed out of the debate about whether Pirker was operating one recklessly. 

“In reaching its decision, the Board determined the FAA may apply the regulation that prohibits operation of an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner to unmanned aircraft,” the NTSB said Tuesday in a statement. “To determine whether Pirker violated this regulation, however, the Board stated an administrative law judge would need to review evidence showing the operation was careless or reckless.” 

The FAA declared victory in the fact that the transportation safety board agreed that a drone could be legally classified as an aircraft. 

“The Federal Aviation Administration has a responsibility to protect the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground,” the agency said in a statement. “The National Transportation Safety Board affirmed the agency's position that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) meet the legal definition of ‘aircraft,’ and that the agency may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.” 

The FAA promised to continue attempting to prove that Pirker was reckless in flying a drone over the University of Virginia. 

“The FAA believes Mr. Pirker operated a UAS in a careless or reckless manner, and that the proposed civil penalty should stand,” the agency said. “The [FAA] looks forward to a factual determination by the Administrative Law Judge on the ‘careless or reckless’ nature of the operation in question.” 

The FAA has been testing the interaction between drones and other types of commercial and private airplanes at multiple sites across the country. 

The agency is facing increased pressure to approve the use of drones quickly because online companies such as Amazon have said they can be used to speed up delivery times. 

Police and other law enforcement groups are also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has also investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with college and professional sporting events.

The potential for increased use of drones has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, who have raised concerns about surveillance.

The deadline from Congress for the FAA to issue a ruling on drones was included in the funding bill that was approved for the agency in 2012.