FAA Fines Drone Company That Flew Near NY, Chicago Airports $1.9 Million



Screenshot of SkyPan International website.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration announced its harshest civil penalty against a UAS operator for alleged illegal drone flights over some of the U.S.’s major aviation hubs.

The $1.9 million penalty is against SkyPan International Inc., a Chicago-based company the FAA says flew 65 illegal flights between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, over Chicago and New York, in addition to other locations.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the federal aviation regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

Forty-three of the flights were operated in New York Class B airspace — airspace that surrounds busy airports — without air traffic control clearance, according to an FAA press release. The agency says for these flights the aircraft did not have a two-way radio, transponder or an altimeter. And for every flight, the FAA says the aircraft did not have an airworthiness certificate, effective registration and SkyPan did not have a certificate of authorization for the operations. The company has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s enforcement letter.

In winter 2014, the end of the time span of the supposed illegal flights, the FAA had granted about 1,400 COAs, though only two belonged to commercial operations — oil companies ConocoPhillips, which flew the Insitu ScanEagle, and BP, which flew AeroVironment Pumas, offshore Alaska. Section 333 exemptions serve as the primary method to legally commercially operate until the FAA finalizes its small UAS rules, expected to occur in about six months. 

However, the FAA did grant SkyPan a Section 333 exemption on April 17, 2015. The first commercial exemptions were awarded in September 2014.

The FAA issued its first fine in 2013 for illegal operations in response to flights by Raphael Pirker over the campus of the University of Virginia. The $10,000 fine was lowered to $1,100 in a settlement in January 2015. 

Last week, a New York district court in Queens — the borough that houses both JFK International Airport and LaGuardia Airport — sentenced a man who illegally flew a drone recreationally over a stadium at the U.S. Open to five days of community service

In October 2014, the FAA released Change 6 of order 2150.3B, the agency's compliance and enforcement program, to update guidance on actions applicable to operators of unmanned aircraft systems in violation of 14 C.F.R. — the Code of Regulations for Aeronautics and Space — or of model aircraft endangering the safety of the national airspace. 

Penalties range from $100 for small entities or individuals to $25,000 per violation for large businesses, and fines reflect the severity of the violation resulting in minimum, moderate or maximum range fines. Individuals in violation acting as pilots may owe from $500 minimum to $1,100 maximum per violation, and each flight can have multiple violations. 

An FAA spokesperson provided a copy of the civil penalty letter, which breaks down the alleged illegal activity, to AUVSI's Unmanned Systems magazine staff. 


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