There’s Another Sheriff in Town

The FAA recently granted two new Section 333 Petitions for Exemption.  The first permits the use of a UAS in precision agriculture, and the second is for real estate photography.  This brings the total number of exemptions granted to 14.  Recent reports indicate that approximately 220 petition for exemptions have been filed to date.

This is all very good news, but what about the thousands of would-be commercial UAS operators who are flying illegally?  Not only do these unregulated UAS operations raise safety concerns, but they are grossly unfair to the people who are investing the time and money into “doing it right.”  We here at Plane-ly Spoken continue to be inundated with reports of illegal operators who pitch clients by telling them not to worry, that the FAA can’t be everywhere, and the odds of being caught are virtually non-existent.  Well, all that may be about to change.

The FAA has just released a document entitled Law Enforcement Guidance For Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations, which sets forth a framework for the involvement of local law enforcement in catching and reporting illegal UAS operators.  The document also contains a “primer” for local law enforcement on what types of UAS operations are legal, what types are illegal, and the statutory basis for the FAA’s enforcement actions.

The guidance clearly reaffirms the FAA’s key positions on UAS:  that UAS are aircraft, that the FAA is responsible for regulation of all aircraft operations in the National Airspace System, and that the FAA can act to protect persons or property on the ground.  The document also provides a detailed analysis of legal hobbyist operations and what authorizations and documentation commercial operators must possess, including a Section 333 Exemption.

The guidance notes that “State and local Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate, and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized UAS operations.”  In particular, the FAA requests that local law enforcement, to the extent possible, develop “a complete and accurate factual report” of any investigation that can be used by the FAA in any subsequent enforcement action.  This includes, witness identification and interviews, identification of the UAS operators, viewing and recording the location of the event, identifying sensitive locations or events or activities that were impacted, notification of the FAA Regional Operations Center, and collection of any other relevant evidence.

The guidance concludes by recognizing that some “law enforcement processes, such as arrest and detention or non-consensual searches almost always fall outside of allowable methods to pursue administrative enforcement actions by FAA . . . .”  However, the FAA does “not wish to discourage use of these methods and procedures where there is an independent basis for them under state or local law” such as pursuit of a state criminal charge for reckless endangerment.

So, illegal UAS operators should beware, there is a new sheriff in town, or at least some extra sheriffs, and they have been briefed on what to look for when they see a UAS in flight.  Hopefully this will help level the playing field for legal UAS operators and provide a new incentive for illegal operators to become compliant.

(Originally posted January 12, 2015)

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