UAS expert: FAA's proposed $1.9 million fine is necessary

By Patrick C. Miller | October 08, 2015

An expert in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business said she welcomed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announcement this week proposing the largest civil penalty ever against a UAS operator for endangering the safety of U.S. airspace.

The FAA plans to levy a $1.9 million civil penalty against SkyPan International Inc. of Chicago, a company that employs UAS for aerial photography. SkyPan recently received a Section 333 commercial exemption from the FAA.

Christina Engh, the chief operating officer for UASolutions Group Inc.—a Florida-based company that providesa consulting and business services to the UAS industry—said the FAA’s actions should serve as a warning to the industry.

“SkyPan is getting fined for what they did between 2012 and 2014; this isn’t something they just did yesterday,” she explained. “If the FAA can find out that someone’s been operating illegally or are operating illegally, they’ll backtrack everything.”

Before joining UASolutions, Engh was a Blackhawk pilot in the U.S. Army and was involved in UAS military operations in Afghanistan. She also worked for three years in the FAA UAS Integration Office.

Engh said there are other well-known companies in the UAS industry that have been flying drones without FAA authorization. “If I was with SkyPan, I’d ask: Why us? And why not everybody else?” she said.

However, Engh commended the FAA for taking action against SkyPan and said the agency needs to do more to more to enforce its regulations.

“They do a lot right with unmanned aircraft, but this fine is really going to make other companies that have been holding out filing for exemptions and flying illegally take notice.”

Engh also noted that businesses which fly both manned and unmanned aircraft need to be especially concerned about violating the FAA’s UAS regulations because it can result in pilots losing their licenses.

“That’s a big deal because then they can’t fly their manned aircraft,” she said.

The FAA alleges that between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized commercial flights in congested airspace in New York and Chicago, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules.

The FAA characterized the aerial photography operations as “illegal and not without risk,” saying that 43 UAS flights in New York occurred in highly restricted Class B airspace.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said Michael Huerta, the agency’s administrator. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

The FAA accused SkyPan of operating in New York’s restricted airspace without receiving an air traffic control clearance. In addition, the agency alleges that the company’s UAS wasn’t equipped with a two-way radio, transponder or altitude-reporting equipment.

On all the SkyPan’s 65 flights, the FAA alleges that not only did the company’s aircraft lack an airworthiness certificates and effective registration, but it also didn’t have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.

According to the FAA, “SkyPan operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property.” The agency said SkyPan has 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond.


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