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Federal Judge Overturns FAA Drone Ban, As NC Lawmakers Consider Usage

Ben Bradford

3/11/14 Update: The FAA has appealed the judge's decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board. The appeal also has the effect of staying the judge's decision.

Some unmanned flying vehicles, or drones, can be used commercially in the U.S., after a federal judge ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration cannot enforce its current policy. The agency has banned commercial drone use.

Drones are best known for their military use overseas, but as long as it flies without a pilot, the FAA considers it a drone. That includes remote-controlled toy store helicopters. Companies are exploring all kinds of uses, from aerial photography to Amazon delivering products, but, the FAA has banned most commercial drone flights while it develops safety rules.

In 2012, the agency fined Raphael Pirker $10,000 for using a drone to film a publicity video for the University of Virginia. Pirker challenged, and Thursday a federal judge ruled in his favor.

The judge says the FAA never made a regulation that covers “model aircraft,” which he says includes small drones. A regulation requires formal steps, including a public hearing.

The agency may take those steps, or create an emergency rule, or appeal the decision. But for today, at least, companies can legally fly.

Top NC technology official presents roadmap

North Carolina’s top technology official has proposed a plan for state agencies to use unmanned flying vehicles, or drones. From law enforcement to the Department of Commerce, the proposal recommends agencies adopt the technology for a range of public uses.

North Carolina’s chief information officer, Chris Estes, had a choice to make about drones. State lawmakers banned government use of the technology last year. They also gave Estes the ability to grant exemptions to that ban, and to create a plan for widespread drone use—if he thinks the state should use them.

He does—for “helping find lost people, putting out forest fires, making crops yield more,” Estes says. “We could create jobs in North Carolina because of this new technology. So, I’m very optimistic about that.”

Estes’ office gathered a working group that includes state officials, academics, law enforcement, military, and private business. They laid out a plan for lawmakers about how agencies could use drones for monitoring the health of crops, mapping geography, and giving traffic updates. The report cites an industry group study that a drone economy could create 1200 North Carolina jobs and bring in more than $11 million to the state economy. Before that can happen, state officials would have to address some concerns, Estes says.

“I think people now associate this with technology that’s used by the government to find people,” says Estes. “So, you can see why they would be concerned with one flying over their home. The good news is there’s already a lot of laws on the books.”

Protecting privacy from domestic drone use has been a concern of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as drone critics. Estes says privacy laws already prevent spying into people’s homes. His report recommends creating a governance board that would solve other issues that crop up. The larger concern is how to safely integrate the machines with other people and planes. The FAA will have ultimate oversight, but state lawmakers are working to pass their own rules of the sky later this year. This report could serve as the roadmap.