A group representing 188 research universities sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday, telling an appeals court that new FAA rules on consumer drones are “a grave threat to science, research, education, and technological innovation across the United States.”
Business owners and the country’s biggest model aircraft association, meanwhile, filed two legal challenges of their own in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, adding to the growing pressure on the FAA over policies that severely limit who can fly a new breed of lightweight camera-equipped drones.
The drones, including models like the 2.5-pound DJI Phantom 2, offer game-changing technology for research and for industries like news gathering, farming, fire-fighting and search-and-rescue. But the FAA, citing concern over privacy and accidents, has taken an increasingly hard line against their use.
In June, for instance, the regulator published new “guidance” stating that only hobbyists may use the devices, and only under a limited set of circumstances. For the universities and business owners, however, the problem is not just that the policy is restrictive. They believe the FAA didn’t have the authority to impose it in the first place.
The June rules are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion,” according to a petition filed by the business owners, which include companies that offer aerial photography to clients such as real estate companies and fire departments. The businesses also warn that the restrictive FAA approach is harming American companies’ ability to compete in the growing field of commercial drone technology.
Meanwhile, the petition from the university group, known as the Council of Government Relations, adds that the rules threaten faculty’s “ability to teach, research and explore science curricula.”
From a legal perspective, the groups may have a case. An administrative judge has already overturned the FAA’s attempt to fine a photographer $10,000, citing the agency’s lack of legal authority to impose it. The FAA’s June “guidelines” appear to suffer from the same problem — the agency issued them without the backing of a formal rule-making process.
As for the three legal challenges filed on Friday, they amount to just the opening salvo in a process known as judicial review, in which the university and business groups will try to show the court that the FAA exceeded its authority. According to Brendan Schulman, the drone lawyer who is representing the groups, the court clerk will set out a schedule for the cases in coming months.
Meanwhile, stories about drones — good and bad — continue to be popular news items. This summer, for instance, a drone operator was hailed as a hero for using his drone to help a search and rescue team locate a missing 82-year-old man. Less popular was a tourist who crashed his drone into an iconic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, and then asked to retrieve it.