In 2011, a marketing company approached Pirker about using his drone to record aerial footage of the University of Virginia for a promotional video. On the day of filming, several representatives of the university, including safety officers, followed Pirker around to make sure university regulations were followed. But as soon as the video was posted online, the FAA came forward to fine him $10,000.
“I decided to read up on US law, and it very quickly became apparent that there was no enforceable legislation,” says Pirker, when reached by phone in Hong Kong, where he now lives. “Because I’m the most famous pilot in this community, it seemed more like they were trying to make an example to scare people.”
If that indeed was the intention, it backfired this March, when a National Transportation Safety Board judge threw out the fine with the argument that the FAA doesn’t have the legal authority to impose or enforce its ban on small drones. The FAA immediately appealed and still has posted on its website: “There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in US airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”
Pirker says that he’s not against having any regulations. “This would be a very good chance for them to make sensible rules,” he says. If the full board affirmed the judge’s ruling, it could jeopardize the federal ban.
Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer and himself a drone hobbyist, says there are safety issues to be worked out but that the initial concerns about privacy and surveillance are overstated. “The scenarios I read about—pictures taken through windows or spying on people in their backyards—these kinds of cases are already covered,” under existing privacy laws, he says. “The offensive conduct is the taking of a picture of someone who is in a private space—not the technology. It shouldn’t matter legally, if I take a picture through a window, whether I use a broomstick or a drone.”