Flying a drone for search-and-rescue is completely legal, and the FAA's cease-and-desist threats aren't.
Flying drones for search-and-rescue purposes is legal, and all the cease-and-desist orders the government has sent drone pilots are bogus, an appeals court judge ruled today. It's the second time that the Federal Aviation Administration has been rebuked by a judge for trying to force drone pilots to stop flying despite there being no regulations against it.
This now becomes the second time a federal judge has ruled against the FAA's practice of trying to stop commercial drone pilots (or, in this case, a nonprofit) from working.
It's a huge win for Texas Equusearch, a volunteer, nonprofit search-and-rescue team that has been flying drones since 2007. Earlier this year, the FAA sent the organization's drone pilot, Gene Robinson, a cease-and-desist email saying that the group was "operating outside of the [FAA's] provisions, stop immediately." Three judges with the Washington DC Court of Appeals ruled that the FAA's email is a bogus order.
"The email at issue is not a formal cease-and-desist letter representing the agency's final conclusion that an entity has violated the law," the judges wrote. "The [FAA] employee did not represent the consummation of the agency's decision making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences."
In other words, because the FAA's letters to the group (and to all the companies flying drones) don't actually say what the punishment for disobeying the agency is, they are null-and-void. And because there's no actual regulation that the FAA can lean on to spell out a punishment, it seems there won't be any real cease-and-desist orders sent out any time soon.
Texas Equusearch plans to resume flying drones for search and rescue groups immediately.
"The Court's decision explains that Texas EquuSearch is not under any FAA mandate to stop using civilian drones to help families find their missing loved ones," Brendan Schulman, the group's lawyer, told me. "This decision achieves the desired result of clarifying that Texas EquuSearch is not legally required to halt these humanitarian operations."
I've written about the exact reasoning for why flying drones for commercial (or hobby, or search-and-rescue) purposes isn't illegal in several other posts, but basically, it comes down to the fact that the FAA has never formally created any regulations banning the practice. Instead, it has relied on a few "policy statements" that the agency has suggested are legally enforceable in cease-and-desist letters like the one it sent to Texas Equusearch.
Today's decision shouldn't be too surprising—in its own argument in the case, the FAA said that pilots should ignore its orders because they aren't actually orders in a roundabout attempt to get the case thrown out in order to keep drones in legal limbo.