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First drone operator fined by the FAA settles for $1,100

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The Federal Aviation Administration vs. Raphael Pirker legal roller coaster has finally come to an end, years after the latter allegedly flew a drone for commercial purposes in a reckless manner. Pirker, who has reached a deal with the FAA to settle his $10,000 fine for $1,100, was sued by the agency for using a Zephyr drone to capture aerial shots of the University of Virginia in 2011. In court, he argued that the Zephyr was but a model airplane and that the FAA had no right to regulate something not officially and legally classified as an aircraft. A National Transportation Safety Board judge initially sided with him and warned the FAA to be careful of what it calls a drone. But the decision was eventually overturned, effectively classifying small UAVs as aircraft ("any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air") falling under the FAA's jurisdiction.

Pirker was the first drone operator fined by the FAA, and his case gives us an idea of how similar ones could go in the future. His lawyer said Pirker settled because the amount of time it's taking to finish the case has "diminished [its] utility... to assist the commercial drone industry in its regulatory struggle." Even so, he and his company, Team BlackSheep, are thankful that it has sparked significant talks about drone use.

Here's Team BlackSheep's statement issued on his behalf:

We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations.

According to the terms of the settlement, Pirker isn't admitting guilt despite paying up, and the FAA will drop some of its accusations against him. As to when the agency will finally come up with a full set of regulations for drone use, well, we can't say, but that's likely still far off.

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