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Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- A judge’s decision to overturn the first fine against a drone operator may lead to more commercial unmanned-aircraft flights in the United States before rules are written to govern their use.

Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board, which decides appeals of enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration, last Thursday dismissed the agency’s $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker for reckless flying. The FAA has no authority over small unmanned aircraft, Geraghty ruled.

"This has very significant implications for companies that have been eager to proceed with commercial applications for UAS technologies," Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer, said in an interview.

The decision is a setback for the FAA, which has held that U.S. commercial drone flights are prohibited until it writes rules governing their use. "We are reviewing the decision," the agency said in an e-mailed statement. It has the option to appeal.

At the time of Pirker’s flight to shoot a promotional video over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Oct. 17, 2011, "there was no enforceable FAA rule" on the type of model aircraft he used, Geraghty said in his decision.

The FAA argued that Pirker’s flight, with a plane made with a foam wing and weighing less than 5 pounds, was "careless and reckless," putting it under the agency’s authority to enforce flying safety.

Pirker flew under bridges, near statues and over pedestrians, as documented on video he shot that day.

The decision counters the FAA’s assertion, most recently made in an update posted on its website Feb. 26, that there are "no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft -- manned or unmanned -- in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval."

Even before the ruling, the FAA was struggling to police the commercial use of drones that anyone can purchase online or at hobby shops.

Drones have been used to film scenes in the Martin Scorsese-directed movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" and sporting events for ESPN. They’ve inspected oil field equipment, mapped agricultural land and photographed homes and neighborhoods for real estate marketing, according to industry officials, company websites and videos on the Internet.

While the FAA hasn’t issued any permits for commercial drone use outside the Arctic, the agency said in a Feb. 10 statement that it will consider them on a case-by-case basis.

Congress in 2012 ordered the FAA to craft rules to safely integrate drones into U.S. skies by 2015. The agency doesn’t expect to allow all drone operations by then and will instead phase them into the system over a longer period, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate hearing Jan. 15.

While flying a model aircraft "solely for hobby or recreational reasons" doesn’t require approval, hobbyists must operate according to 1981 guidelines, such as staying away from populated areas, the agency has said.

Pirker didn’t qualify as a hobbyist, the FAA argued.

Geraghty found the guidelines can’t be enforced, at least for people piloting a "model" plane.

The agency needs to create exceptions for businesses that want to use them, Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said March 5 at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee session in Washington.

Toscano’s association is an Arlington, Va.-based trade group representing unmanned aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Textron.