By Alwyn Scott
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. aviation safety board on Tuesday ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to apply to unmanned aircraft its long-standing rules against reckless or careless use of manned aircraft.
In making the decision, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent its first case involving an FAA fine against a drone back to an administrative law judge to determine whether the flight in question was "careless or reckless."
The case has been closely watched for indications of the FAA's ability to enforce regulations against the commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The FAA is developing specific regulations for such aircraft but has effectively banned their commercial use except when operators are granted special exemptions. In September, it granted an exemption to a group of film and television production companies.
The NTSB case involved use of an unmanned aircraft in 2011 to make a video for the University of Virginia. The FAA fined the remote pilot, Raphael Pirker, $10,000. Pirker appealed the fine and filed a motion to dismiss the case.
The FAA said Pirker had, among other maneuvers, flown his model aircraft, a Ritewing Zephyr, "directly towards an individual standing on a ... sidewalk, causing the individual to take immediate evasive maneuvers so as to avoid being struck."
The administrative law judge found in March that the FAA did not have enforceable regulations against reckless use of unmanned aircraft, prompting the FAA to appeal to the NTSB. The judge, Patrick Geraghty, found that the FAA had said in 1981 and 2007 that it excluded model aircraft from its regulations on aircraft.
In Tuesday's decision, the NTSB found that current U.S. regulations define aircraft as "any device ... used for flight in the air." That definition, the NTSB said, applies to "any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small."
The NTSB board voted unanimously in favor of the decision. The board currently has four members, rather than the normal five.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by W Simon and Meredith Mazzilli)