After court ruling, the sky's the limit for private drone use


Private citizens from photographers to farmers are starting to use drones to support their business, or simply as a new hobby, even as lawmakers and the Federal Aviation Administration wrestle with how to regulate the small aircraft.

Cory Fechner, a photographer and drone hobbyist who lives in the Duluth area, has used a drone with a small camera attached -- which he navigates via GPS -- to capture photos of scenes like the Split Rock Lighthouse and the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the Northland News Center reports.

There are no laws on the books regulating the private use of drones. But the FAA has guidelines in place that the agency says bans the use of drones for commercial purposes. Fechner learned that first hand after using his drone to capture the start of the Beargrease.

"The FAA did contact me after the Beargrease. They called me and said this could be considered a commercial. I said I did it as a hobbyist, but their thought was you are shooting a commercial event," Fechner told the Northland News Center.

The question of whether a drone can be used for a commercial event was answered two weeks ago by Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board. He dismissed an FAA fine against a photographer who used a drone near the University of Virginia to film a commercial, the Wall Street Journal reports.

"There was no enforceable FAA rule" concerning the 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, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The FAA has since appealed the ruling.

You may also recall that the FAA came down on a beer distributor in Wisconsin who was testing the use of drones to deliver beer to ice anglers.

There also is uncertainty today as to whether a farmer who decides to use his own drone to survey crops would be considered a commercial entity, the Des Moines Register reports.

“We are concerned about any (unmanned aircraft systems) operation that poses a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground,” the agency said in a statement. “If we receive a complaint about such flights, we investigate to determine if the operator violated FAA safety regulations,” according to the Register.

Brent Johnson, who uses a drone on his Iowa farm, said the lack of rules from the FAA is the biggest challenge for farmers who want to use the technology.

“We just don’t have enough direction from the FAA as to what we can do and what we shouldn’t do,” he told the Des Moines Register. “The technology is extremely exciting. People just have to be careful right now with the political pressure and lack of rules.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has been pressing the FAA to allow limited drone use for some operations, such as farmers and movies, saying Congress has already granted that authority, according to the newspaper.

“Instead, they are taking a one-size-fits-all approach, which is to regulate the entire airspace to prevent anyone from flying,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel of the association.

The FAA is not expected to release its guidelines for private drone use for another year or so. In the meantime, the agency issued a fact sheet to "bust myths" about the use of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Many organizations are urging the agency to move more quickly.

Nine states have enacted their own drone regulations, and many others are considering them. In Minnesota, lawmakers are discussing whether to limit how drones can be used by law enforcement officials.

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