FAA insists authority to regulate drones, airspace in Trappy lawsuit


Raphael Pirker, a.k.a. "Trappy," was best known for being part of Team Black Sheep, a globetrotting team of daredevil drone flyers who produced stunning videos of their low-flying exploits. That was, until a video he made above the University of Virginia in October 2011 earned him a $10,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Now Pirker is better known as the first person to challenge the FAA's authority over small unmanned aircraft. In September, his legal counsel, Brendan Shulman of the New York City law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel, filed a motion to dismiss with the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Among other assertions, Schulman wrote that the FAA has no jurisdiction to regulate low-flying unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones, such as Pirker's.

"At a minimum, partial dismissal of the Complaint is warranted as to all allegations concerning operation at very low altitudes, inside a tunnel, below tree top level, or underneath a pedestrian overpass because these locations are not 'navigable airspace' subject to FAA jurisdiction," Schulman wrote.

Navigable airspace, according to 49 USC § 40102, is airspace "above the minimum altitudes of flight."

Today, sUASNews.com published the FAA's response to Schulman's motion to dismiss. In that response, FAA's counsel insists that it has authority over all airspace, and may regulate the flight of all aircraft.


“The Respondent accurately cites the definition of “navigable airspace;”, however, that definition does not in any way, explicitly or implicitly, define the outer limits of the FAA’s authority to regulate airspace. In sum, the FAA’s mandate to regulate the use of all airspace necessary to “ensure the safety” of aircraft, for “protecting, and identifying” those aircraft, and for “protecting individuals on the ground” is not confined solely to the “navigable airspace.””

The FAA also alleges that the manner in which Pirker piloted his aircraft was reckless, which was prohibited by its rules governing model aircraft.

During the flight in question, Pirker was piloting a 4.5-pound foam wing called the Zephyr, which was equipped with a small high-definition camera to record a "first person view," or "FPV."

Pirker and Schulman recently spoke about their legal battle with Patrick Egan, the American Editor for sUASNews.

The two also presented at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC). A video of their presentation is below.