The Phantom 2 Vision on display at CES 2014 in Las Vegas. (Photo by

In a court case bound to have far-reaching implications for U.S.-based photographers looking to use drones or other model aircraft for commercial shoots, National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick G. Geraghty has struck down an FAA suit against a photographer for his 'reckless' use of a drone.  

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In the case before the NTSB, the FAA claimed that photographer Raphael Pirker was flying his 'Ritewing Zephyr powered glider aircraft' near the University of Virginia's Charlottesville campus and that the 'flight…was for compensation, in that payment was received for video and photographs taken during that flight.' The FAA contended that he violated FAA regulations by flying the aircraft in a reckless manner and sought a $10,000 civil penalty.

If the NTSB had found in favor of the FAA complaint, there would have been a dark cloud cast over drone flights for commercial purposes because any commercial drone flight would then have been subject to possible FAA regulation.

Historically, FAA policy has been based on the use of the unmanned aircraft, which they define in this document, stating that 'The Federal Aviation Administration's current policy is based on whether the unmanned aircraft is used as a public aircraft, civil aircraft or as a model aircraft.'

As a generalization the FAA doesn’t interfere with or regulate model aircraft flight, and asks that operators use 'good judgement' to prevent harm, but they can regulate any commercial use. Drone use for a commercial photo shoot seems to fall within their commercial guidelines though until recently the FAA has not tried to regulate their use. 

Judge Geraghty first pointed out that the FAA clearly states that unmanned devices of a certain size and power are 'model' aircraft and by using the word 'model' to describe these devices removes the FAA's ability to oversee them as they are not aircraft.

He then slammed the FAA for bringing a suit based on a policy memo as 'policy statements of an agency are not — aside from the fact that the guidance policy therein expressed is stated for internal FAA use — binding upon the general public.'

Model aircraft aficionados and photographers alike have reason to celebrate this ruling, though naturally the FAA has announced a decision to appeal. The full NTSB panel will next hear this case, though a date for that hearing has not been set as of press time. 

What do you think of the ruling? Do you use drones in your photographic work?