Daredevil drone pilot's defense says government doesn't regulate model aircraft

Trappy, a Swiss national otherwise known as Ralphael Pirker, has been known to raise some eyebrows in the DIY drone community.

Part of that is due to the amazing visuals he and his team of daredevil drone enthusiasts,
Team Black Sheep, captured while darting through exotic locales in New Zealand, Rio, Italy, London, and elsewhere.

The other reason is that Team Black Sheep uses some unorthodox, and some would say dangerous and illegal, methods to obtain amazing videos.

"Most of us are aware of Raphael Pirker (aka Trappy) and Team Blacksheep’s exploits as their videos are all over the web and the subject of heated debates in different forums," wrote Patrick Egan, the American sUASNews.com editor.  "It is almost impossible to hear the subject debated in a civil manner as there are two very distinct camps formed up on this issue."

"One side believes that Trappy has the right to fly his RC plane the way he does and that he is charting new territory in the First Person View (FPV) world. Others believe the behavior appears reckless and in some cases, disrespectful.

Pirker also gained the ire of the Federal Aviation Administration in October 2011 when he buzzed the University of Virginia, and was given a $10,000 fine for "careless or reckless" operation. He is the only person known to have been penalized by the FAA for flying a drone without federal authorization.

Pirker plans to appeal the decision. According to documents recently obtained by sUASNews.com (pdf), Pirker's defense strategy involves a motion to dismiss the case (FAA v Pirker), on the grounds that there are no federal regulations governing model aircraft.

 "By its own terms, AC 91-57 [An FAA Advisory Circular concerning model aircraft] is a 'voluntary' standard. It does not carry the weight of law. It has never been enforced," Pirker's defense wrote. "It does not provide notice of any consequences for a violation (because there are none) and it does not suggest that model aircraft operation could, under any circumstances, instead fall subject to any of the FARs that apply to full-scale manned aircraft (because that would be absurd)."

Further, "Trappy's" defense argues that because his aircraft were flown at very low altitudes, they were flown outside of the navigable airspace and therefore were not subject to FAA's jurisdiction.

"This alone compels the dismissal of nearly the entire complaint," counsel wrote.

Egan, who also is president of the Silicon Valley chapter of AUVSI, wrote on sUASNews.com that this case could have an enormous impact on the unmanned aviation community.

"Whatever the eventual outcome, we should at the very least have a better understanding and some clarification on how the process is supposed to work, and discern where exactly the U.S. RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems] community stands.," Egan wrote.

Pirker will be discussing the case and more at the upcoming Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference in New York City, which begins next week. 


A previous version of this story claimed that Pirker was fined for flying over New York City. In fact, Pirker was fined for flying over the University of Virginia. The story has been edited to correct this error. 




Posted on October 2, 2013 .