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Court rules FAA drone ban unenforceable

Drones used for commercial purposes, including search-and-rescue and photography in dangerous zones, can fly again after a three-judge panel tossed an FAA's ban on their use.
Drones used for commercial purposes, including search-and-rescue and photography in dangerous zones, can fly again after a three-judge panel tossed an FAA's ban on their use.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that cease-and-desist orders issued by the Federal Aviation Administration to halt commercial drone use are unenforceable. The ruling opens the door for hundreds of businesses that use unmanned aircraft for photography, farming, and emergency services to begin flying again.

In the ruling, the three-judge panel of the District of Columbia circuit of the United States Court of Appeals wrote that emails sent by the FAA to Texas EquuSearch were not legally binding because there is no complete law in the books prohibiting commercial drones.

EquuSearch, a nonprofit, volunteer search-and-rescue organization, has been using small drones and unmanned aircraft since 2006. It employs the technology to more quickly search for missing persons in hazardous or remote areas. Earlier this year, Equusearch's chief drone pilot, Gene Robinson, received an email from the FAA alerting him that such use of drones violated FAA policy and ordered him to stop. EquuSearch challenged the order in April.

In Thursday's decision, the court found that the policy statement the FAA adopted to ban commercial use of drones did not include a list of consequences, and without laying out penalties, renders it unenforceable by the courts.

"… Given the absence of any identified legal consequences flowing from the challenged email, this case falls within the usual rule," the court has no penalties to levy against businesses that violate the ban, the court wrote. Without penalties, the court cannot enforce the ban, thereby rendering the cease-and-desist emails null.

"The Court’s decision explains that Texas EquuSearch is not under any FAA mandate to stop using civilian drones to help families find their missing loved ones," Brendan Schulman, the group's lawyer, told tech site Motherboard. "This decision achieves the desired result of clarifying that Texas EquuSearch is not legally required to halt these humanitarian operations."

The FAA currently has no formal regulations specifically covering the use of drones for commercial purposes, but it is working to write such law, which requires a long process of hearings and public review. However, in order to address the quickly rising use of commercial drone technologies, the agency issued its policy statement early this year banning their use across the United States until formal law is set.

EquuSearch was one of many of commercial businesses to receive the cease-and-desist emails in past months, including numerous farmers who use the drones to monitor crops and livestock and aerial photographers who use UAVs who make videos for real-estate agents and other clients. Earlier this month, the FAA announced it was investigating the use of a drone by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D- N.Y), who hired an aerial photographer to photograph his wedding.

The FAA is expected to issue formal law on the commercial use of drones next year, relying on input from major military drone and UAV manufacturers. But the process has been mired in controversy from small-business pilots and drone manufacturers who claim their interests have not been included in the discussion.

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