Mar 7, 2014 · 4 minutes

Drones might soon be coming to a neighborhood near you. A federal judge has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration has not explicitly outlawed the unmanned aerial vehicles. This will allow all number of businesses, from beer distributors to photography companies, to operate their drones without running afoul of the law.

The ruling was made in favor of Raphael Pirker, a drone pilot fined by the FAA for "operating a drone recklessly while filming at the University of Virginia," according to Politico. Though the FAA could issue an emergency rule to ban commercial drones or appeal the ruling, the case will allow drone operators to fly their vehicles below 400 feet, at least for now.

Drones have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Small companies have tried to use them to make deliveries; large shipping businesses like UPS have also announced plans to make deliveries via drone. Amazon also hopes to utilize a fleet of drones to make its own deliveries -- which would allow it to bypass the UPS for some shipments -- in a few years. The FAA plans to introduce drone regulations by 2015, but for now the skies are clear for take off.

[Update 5:29pm PT] The FAA has appealed the judge's decision to the National Transportation Safety Board, which "has the effect of staying the decision until the Board rules," the agency says in a press release.

It continues: "The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground." It seems that the skies, at least for now, will remain drone-free.


Reactions from around the Web

Motherboard reports on the sheer number of companies this ruling will help:

What this means, at least for now, is that you can go fly your drone and charge whatever the hell you want to do it. Beer delivery drones are legal, and so is everything else. It also means that all those companies that have been harassed by the FAA have, at least for the moment, nothing to worry about.
Bloomberg describes the wide variety of roles drones have played in the last few years:
Drones have been used to film scenes in the Martin Scorsese-directed movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and sporting events for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN. They’ve inspected oilfield equipment, mapped agricultural land and photographed homes and neighborhoods for real estate marketing, according to industry officials, company websites and videos on the Internet.
Politico explains why the FAA believed that it had successfully banned commercial drones:
The ban was based on a FAA policy advisory given to agency employees who had asked questions about how to handle problems with model aircraft. Since 2007, the agency has insisted its rules applied to drones, as well. Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, argued the advisory wasn’t enforceable, and Judge Geraghty agreed.
Pando weighs in

Pando editor Adam Penenberg wrote about a drone-filled future in our "views from dystopia" series:

While larger-sized drones would likely be subject to FAA regulations if they want to fly over US soil — the agency issues permits, although not everyone is waiting for one — smaller drones would be hard to regulate. And what to make of micro air vehicles (MAVs), dubbed “bugbots,” that mimic small birds, and, according to this freaky video, could provide extended surveillance, since they take on energy from environmental sources like the sun, which means they could operate undetected for extended periods. They could swarm in teams, communicating with one another and engage in advanced decision-making capability.
Pando's Yasha Levine wrote about the dangers of commercial drones after Amazon announced its drone efforts in December:
As Truth Out recently noted, many of drone laws working their way through state legislatures across the country that would require police to obtain warrants for drone surveillance lack any restrictions on data sharing between government agencies and commercial drone companies. Placing restrictions on government drones while leaving commercial drones use wide open and unrestricted would only incentivize government agencies to outsource their drone business. What could be better for military and intelligence contractors?
I covered the privacy implications of Facebook drones in particular, and commercial drones in general, on Tuesday:
Maybe the company could use aerial imagery to see that the paint on top of someone’s car has started to peel, a perfect opportunity for an auto shop to advertise its painting service. Perhaps it could monitor the users accessing its networks and determine who is spending time with whom without either of them ever mentioning it on Facebook. Then the company could use its vast databases to figure out that this person is spending more time with someone who isn’t his wife and use that information to advertise chocolates and lipstick remover. (It could also display an ad for a private investigator to the user’s wife — coincidentally, of course.)
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]