Search-and-rescue drones fly again after court throws out FAA case

Photo by XRay4000/Flickr

Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit that says unmanned aircraft can do the work of 100 volunteers, will resume the use of drones in missing-person searches following a court ruled that an FAA email had “no legal consequences.”

The search-and-rescue group had previously used five-pound drones made of foam and plastic to survey rough terrain, but stopped doing so earlier this year following a warning by the federal aviation regulator.

Texas EquuSearch challenged the warning before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where it also claimed that the FAA has for years “harassed and interfered” with its members “before, after and during search and rescue activities.”

The three-judge panel wrote in a short order that it would dismiss the case because the email did “not represent the consummation of the agency’s decision making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences.”

The ruling (posted below) amounts to a technicality — the court basically said Texas EquuSearch’s lawsuit was premature — but it does for now lift a current legal cloud over the nonprofit.

”Texas EquuSearch is free to resume its humanitarian use of drones … Therefore, the organization and its volunteers plan to resume their use of this life-saving technology immediately,” said lawyer Brendan Schulmann by email.

The ruling is also likely to draw renewed attention to the FAA’s predicament when it comes to addressing the growing popularity of unmanned aircraft, which have the potential to transform a range of industries from farming to news photography to movies.

While the FAA has declared that nearly every commercial use of drones is banned, the agency does not appear to have the legal authority to impose such a measure. The issue is that, while Congress has instructed the FAA to develop policies, it is behind schedule in doing so — and is instead relying on policy statements that don’t have the same force as regulations.

The next big test for the FAA will come in a case over a commercial photographer in Virginia, where the FAA is appealing a lower ruling that it had no authority to impose a $10,000 fine.

The current law over civilian drones is not a free-for-all, however. The FAA does possess clear authority to regulate them near airports, while state and city authorities can also enforce privacy and public order laws against people who use drones irresponsibly — like a New York man who flew one near hospital windows last week.

Texas EquuSearch

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