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WSJ: The Drone That Shot Down the Feds… Will drones deliver boxes to your door now?

LOL!  An Aussie filmmaker used a drone to record video of the Statue of Liberty… When it went viral – his business exploded… until the Feds stepped in…

WSJ:   Mr. Raphael Pirker’s legal journey began innocently enough, when he became involved in the small but intense world of hobbyists who use radio-controlled drones to record the most stunning bird’s-eye video of Earth’s landmarks. In late 2010, he flew a small drone around the Statue of Liberty’s crown, more than 200 feet above Liberty Island. The video went viral online and Mr. Pirker realized that he could turn his hobby into a business.

Soon trouble came. In 2011 the Federal Aviation Administration slapped him with an unprecedented $10,000 fine after he used a drone to record a promotional video of the University of Virginia campus. The FAA charged that he had operated without a license and flown recklessly close to buildings, cars in a tunnel and pedestrians.

In his defense, Mr. Pirker noted that his drone—a five-pound Styrofoam model airplane—caused no injury or damage. More significantly, he argued that the U.S. government was acting lawlessly, prohibiting commercial drone use based only on model-airplane guidelines from 1981 that were explicitly “voluntary” and never carried the force of law.

Two weeks ago, Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board, emphatically agreed. “There was no enforceable FAA rule” concerning Mr. Pirker’s aircraft, he wrote, and the government’s insistence amounted to a “risible argument” that the FAA has authority over anything that moves through the air, including even “a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider.” The judge threw out the fine and, with it, the federal ban on commercial drones.

“It was quite surprising to see the ruling that much in favor of our argument,” Mr. Pirker says. For years the FAA had implemented its policy unevenly, ignoring some recreational and commercial drone use yet sending cease-and-desist letters to several businesses and insisting publicly that, as its website put it, “There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”

Mr. Pirker’s fine, levied amid mounting public controversy over the safety and privacy implications of drones, was the government’s highest-profile salvo, and it backfired.

Now the field is wide open for private drone flight—at least until regulators promulgate binding standards. 

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