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Are the Skies Open for Commercial Drones?

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Raphael Pirker, drone activist? (Photo credit: LeWeb13)

Drones have become a topic in any conversation about the future of retail and e-commerce. Sure there are all of those pesky practical considerations about drones hitting people, houses, electric wires, etc. But the biggest obstacle, until earlier this month, appeared to be the federal government.

The FAA was master of the skies - at least it was until earlier this month when an Austrian entrepreneur challenged the agency and won. Raphael Pirker was hit with a $10,000 fine by the FAA in 2011 for flying a five pound styrofoam drone above the University of Virginia to film the campus for a promotional video. The FAA charged that he had operated without a license and flown recklessly close to buildings, cars in a tunnel and pedestrians.

In throwing Pirker's case out, the NTSB administrative judge also threw out the FAA regulation banning drones. Saying that there was no "enforceable" rule against Pirker's drone, and that the government's claim amounted to a claim of jurisdiction over everything in the sky, including, "a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider." Pirker's company TBS Avionics operates out of Hong Kong.

Where does this leave us? At present, there are no laws against commercial drones. That's likely to change soon as we confront safety issues. Even Pirker contends that there do need to be safety regulations in place. There is a difference after all between a five pound styrofoam drone flying around the Virginia countryside and a fifty pound drone circling the State Liberty. Time will tell whether the commercial drone market becomes the growth industry that Raphael Pirker glimpses on the horizon.