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If you thought the FAA was going to punish those who fail to comply with FAA’s small unmanned aircraft system (UAS, or drone) regulations with a gentle slap on the wrist, think again.  In a recently settled case, the FAA has made it clear that it takes violations of small UAS regulations very seriously.  The case involves SkyPan International, Inc., in the business of aerial photography above private property in urban areas for its commercial customers.  The FAA alleged that between March 21, 2012 and December 15, 2014 Skypan conducted 65 illegal commercial aerial photography flights in congested airspace and heavily populated cities.  A  small UAS/drone is an aircraft, and its operation is regulated by the FAA.  Prior to to the FAA adopting small UAS regulations for commercial operations (Part 107 of the FAR’s,  in effect as of August 29, 2016) it was up to the FAA to approve commercial flight operations for drones on a case by case basis,  This was commonly called a “Section 333 exemption.”   SkyPan failed to obtain a Section 333 exemption until after the illegal flights, and paid the price.  Businesses that fail to comply with the small UAS regulations are subject to being assessed a civil penalty (a monetary fine) by the FAA.  In the SkyPan case, the FAA proposed a civil penalty of $1.9 million, and according to a January 18, 2017 FAA statement, the case was settled by SkyPan agreeing to pay a $200,000 civil penalty, another $150,000 if it violates FAA regulations within a year, and another $150,000 if it fails to comply with the terms of the settlement agreement.

A business that receives a letter of investigation from the FAA regarding its operation of a small UAS should be cautious in determining how to (or whether to) respond.  If a Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty is received from the FAA, several optional responses will be presented.  An experienced aviation attorney will know the best response to the FAA under the circumstances.

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