As readers of this blog are aware, the FAA was poised to become the first aviation regulatory body to successfully fine the operator of a UAS in the FAA v. Pirker matter. Those plans were derailed, however, by a ruling from the Administrative Law Judge that called into question the validity of the entire regime of UAS regulation in the United States.
British regulators, however, have had more success. Earlier this month, a TV-repair shop owner became the first person convicted in the UK for dangerous operation of a UAS, and was fined £800 and ordered to pay costs of £3,500.
British regulations permit hobbyists to operate UAS so long as it is done safely and away from structures. On the day in question, the UAS, which was equipped with a camera, was flown near a bridge. The UK Civil Aviation Authority cited the operator because the UAS was flown close enough to have hit a car and caused an accident if control was lost.
Matters further deteriorated for the operator when he unexpectedly lost radio contact with the UAS. The UAS’s onboard systems allowed it to continue to fly in a straight line. This, unfortunately, took the UAS over a BAE Systems shipyard where nuclear submarines are constructed. The shipyard occupies restricted airspace, and operation of the UAS there is prohibited.
The UAS subsequently crashed and was recovered by employees at the shipyard. Authorities were able to trace the UAS back to its owner because the on board camera recorded his vehicle license number when it took off.
While this may be the first successful prosecution of a UAS operator, it definitely will not be the last. The case highlights a number of issues that the FAA will have to address in its comprehensive rulemaking. These include the application of safety rules to hobbyists, how close is too close to cars and buildings, and what sorts of safeguards will UAS’s need in the event of the loss of signals from ground controllers.
(Originally posted May 5, 2014)