(Photos courtesy of Elevated Element)
Sending drones into the skies for commercial purposes is legal for the time being, according to a ruling made by an administrative law judge Thursday.
For Owings Mills-based, husband-wife duo Elevated Element, that’s welcome news — as of today, Terry and Belinda Kilby launched a “drone-for-hire” business to take aerial photos for remuneration with their fleet of six camera-equipped drones for businesses and people “in real estate, land development, large outdoor events and golf courses,” said Terry Kilby via email.
Up until Thursday’s decision, flying drones for commercial purposes was considered illegal by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) due to a 2007 policy ban the federal agency issued. (The ban, however, wasn’t enforced for hobbyists flying model aircraft for pleasure — so long as aircraft were flown below 400 feet and away from airports, people, or full-size aircraft.)
Citing safety as its main reason for the ban, the FAA squashed the dreams of people like the Kilbys who wanted to take aerial photographs for recreation as well as solicit payment in advance for taking such photographs. The Kilbys maintain that they operate their unmanned aerial vehicles safely, sending their drones airborne in the early morning and in areas without a lot of foot traffic.
Nevertheless, the policy ban meant that steep fines of up to $10,000 could be levied against anyone flying drones for monetary gain. No more, thanks to a federal judge who said there are no laws stopping people from flying drones commercially.
Thursday’s decision handed down by judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board was based upon the FAA case against Raphael Pirker. While the FAA has issued numerous cease-and-desist letters over the last seven years, Pirker is the first — and still only — person the FAA has tried fining for being paid to take aerial photography via drone. VICE has more (emphasis ours):
The FAA attempted to fine the 29-year-old Pirker $10,000 after he used a drone to film a commercial at the University of Virginia. Pirker and his lawyer, Brendan Schulman, fought the case, saying that the FAA has never regulated model aircraft and that its entire basis for making them “illegal,” a 2007 policy notice, was not legally binding. The FAA has never undertaken the required public notice necessary to make an official regulation.
Because the FAA has not issued an “enforceable Federal Acquisition Regulation regulatory rule governing model aircraft operation,” in Geraghty’s words, it can not fine people who take photos from the air by drone and for payment.
“This decision literally created a new business model for us overnight,” said Kilby.
He said a few real estate development and land developer clients have been “waiting in the wings” to hire Elevated Element for aerial mapping and photography work. As Technical.ly Baltimore reported in October, the Kilbys use a CNC router, laser cutters and 3D printers to build their unmanned, multi-rotor mini-copters in their garage-turned-machine shop in Owings Mills. One of the models of drones Elevated Element makes carries a GoPro camera and is small enough to fit inside a backpack.
But a new CNC machine recently purchased “can cut out at least a dozen more [drones] a day if need be,” Kilby said.
The Kilbys might just need them. It’s unclear yet how the FAA will respond to the ruling. An emergency rule issued by the FAA could more forcefully and unambiguously circumscribe commercial drone flight. But the FAA is already planning to release a preliminary set of rules in 2015 that would govern how unmanned aerial drones such as the Kilbys’ must operate in continental U.S. airspace, as Technical.ly Baltimore reported.
As for Elevated Element, a drone-for-hire business isn’t the only new development. Next month the couple will release their line of quadcopters for purchase, including Elevated Element’s “flagship model,” Cygnus, which carries a Sony NEX series camera.
Read judge Patrick Geraghty’s ruling below.