WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA says a recent court decision regarding the use of drones has no bearing on the agency’s ability to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), but a Texas organization that brought the action plans to continue using UAS without approval from the government office. Texas EquuSearch had sued the FAA seeking to overturn an order the agency emailed to it in February prohibiting the use of drones.
The FAA won when the three-panel Federal Appeals Court dismissed the case, saying the notice sent to EquuSearch did not represent the FAA’s final conclusion on the use of drones and therefore the court had no jurisdiction. Also, the court decision said the email message for cease and desist did not represent the consummation of the FAA’s decision-making process.
EquuSearch has been using drones for search and rescue since 2000. The non-profit all volunteer organization, founded by Tim Miller after his daughter was abducted and murdered, operates drones in a large area outside Houston. It is reported that thousands of volunteers have become active in EquuSearch throughout the United States.
Besides drones, EquuSearch uses other methods, such as horseback, to seek out missing individuals. The organization says it has returned more than 300 missing persons to their homes and found the remains of nearly 180 persons who had been reported as missing. Eleven of these recoveries resulted from the use of drones.
“We’re free to continue using drones,” Miller said after the court’s decision that the FAA had not issued its final rules regarding drones. This is not expected until sometime next year. “Texas EquuSearch is free to resume its humanitarian use of drones.”
He told a Houston newspaper that his organization had turned down several requests for help because they were not able to use drones.
The FAA says it is now considering what to do next about regulating EquuSearch’s use of drones before final rules are issued. The agency says the ruling to dismiss will have no effect on its legal ability to maintain safety. Currently the FAA approves use of drones on a case-by-case basis for emergency use for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations.
The agency said it is still free to take enforcement action against anyone who operates a drone in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system. This presumably includes operation of drones which might endanger manned aircraft. Currently, drones are not to be operated within five miles of an airport.
In June of this year the FAA issued a notice to provide guidance to model aircraft/UAF operators on the “dos and don’ts” of flying safety. In the notice, the FAA restated the definition of “model aircraft,” including requirements that they not interfere with manned aircraft, be flown within sight of the operator, and operated only for hobby or recreational purposes.