Facebook, Amazon, and even Netflix may soon be free to use drones thanks to a federal court decision Thursday striking down the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) ban, giving way for more widespread commercial use.
Judge Patrick Geraghty dismissed charges against Raphael Pirker, the only person who has been fined by the FAA for flying drones commercially. Pirker was fined $10,000 for using a drone to film a commercial. But the judge found there was no enforceable rule or regulation within the agency’s authority to restrict the use of unmanned or model aircraft, according to court documents.
During the drone ban’s almost seven-year tenure, the FAA grappled with adequately enforcing it as the technology gained popularity among scientists, photographers, and filmmakers. The FAA ban didn’t officially make flying drones for profit illegal but the agency did dole out fines and warning letters to drone operators saying that they were violating the rule. The judge’s ruling Thursday, however, officially lifts the ban and reverses any of the agency’s punitive actions against drone operators. The decision also dismissed a $10,000 fine imposed against Raphael Pirker, who was cited for recklessly flying a drone while filming a commercial on the University of Virginia’s campus in 2011.
Tech giants like Amazon and Google have expressed a keen interest in using drones commercially to deliver packages. But while flying drones has been given the green light for now, the ruling limits drone flight to between at least 10 and 400 feet above ground, according to Geraghty’s decision. Also, the FAA could fight the decision through an appeal or an emergency injunction, barring small drone use. The FAA plans to release more rules governing commercial drone use later this year and roll out a complete plan by 2015, as ordered by Congress.
Despite the favorable ruling, dreams of super-fast drone delivery still could be a little further off, if not completely unattainable. Even if regulated for safety, commercial drone use raises concerns about economic inequality, as more jobs become automated in favor of providing more playthings to those who can afford it. Drone delivery could also lead to the extinction of the U.S. Postal Service, costing hundreds of thousands of working class jobs. However, drones could also potentially be an empowering tool for the poor; Facebook, for instance, envisions using them to expand Internet access to underserved areas all over the world.