Pro video blog…Produced by Philip Johnston DoP/Editor


In a court case bound to have far-reaching implications for U.S.-based photographers looking to use drones or other model aircraft for commercial shoots, National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick G. Geraghty has stuck down an FAA suit against a photographer for his ‘reckless’ use of a drone.

In the case before the NTSB, the FAA claimed that photographer Raphael Pirker was flying his ‘Ritewing Zephyr powered glider aircraft’ near the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus and that the ‘flight…was for compensation, in that payment was received for video and photographs taken during that flight.’ The FAA contended that he violated FAA regulations by flying the aircraft in a reckless manor and sought a $10,000 civil penalty.

If the NTSB had found in favor of the FAA complaint, there would have been a dark cloud cast over drone flights for commercial purposes because any commercial drone flight would then have been subject to possible FAA regulation.

Historically, FAA policy has been based on the use of the unmanned aircraft, which they define in this document, stating that ‘The Federal Aviation Administration’s current policy is based on whether the unmanned aircraft is used as a public aircraft, civil aircraft or as a model aircraft.’

As a generalization the FAA doesn’t interfere with or regulate model aircraft flight and asks that operates use ‘good judgement’ to prevent harm, but can regulate any commercial use. Drone use for a commercial photo shoot seems to fall within their commercial guidelines though until recently the FAA has not tried to regulate their use.


Judge Geraghty first pointed out that the FAA clearly states that unmanned devices of a certain size and power are ‘model’ aircraft and by using the word ‘model’ to describe these devices removes the FAA’s ability to oversee them as they are not aircraft.

He then slammed the FAA for bringing a suit based on a policy memo as ‘policy statements of an agency are not — aside from the fact that the guidance policy therein expressed is stated for internal FAA use — binding upon the general public.’

Model aircraft aficionados and photographers alike have reason to celebrate this ruling, though naturally the FAA has announced a decision to appeal. The full NTSB panel will next hear this case, though a date for that hearing has not been set as of press time.

HDW : This is indeed a good judgement, certainly for video and photographers in the USA. I do think its all getting out of hand, there should be a 2 week course in order to fly these “drones” up to a certain size like the Phantom with an understanding that you take out insurance and act responsibly.

I do not under any circumstances think you should have to fork out £1500 to the CAA and take a mini pilots course lasting 15 months in order to be able to fly a Phantom.

A Phantom without a camera is a simple model aircraft…its only the attachment of a GoPro that seems to change the rules and hey presto the CAA gets involved …WHY ?


Model aircraft enthusiasts have been sticking GoPro’s on their aircraft for a few years now and I don’t see any of the witch hunt that precedes the Phantom…its a joke !


Having been working in the video business since 1988 I have amassed a great amount of knowledge of both the kit and production values over the last 30 years.

4 thoughts on “American Judge throws out $10,000 law suit against photographer

  1. The CAA thing is a pain… .been dealing with it for a long time now.. but in their defence, lots of people are really not being clever with their drone use and that it is what will end up spoiling it for everyone.

    And the difference between drones and the model aircraft enthusiasts is that they have always only ever been allowed to fly in designated areas and never over anyone or anything… and they pretty much always stick to that. People filming with drones take off in towns and cities and just fly over streets, cars, people…anything..there’s a general feeling that they are safe. – that’s the issue. I’ve had a drone fail and crash on a shoot and believe me, a quadcopter falling from 100ft is a deadly thing. Did you see the footage of the drone filming the queues at the X-Factor auditions last year? Luckily that pilot steered the failing drone into the Thames, but it was very close to coming down in the crowd… that could have killed someone.

    It’ll probably get banned before long…

    HDW : Its the same the world over…MINORITY RULES…a handful of idiots spoil the fun for everyone else. Problem is in this case “quad copters” can be purchased in many guises and flown in public…very sad.

  2. Multi-rotors are becoming more and more mainstream with little education being offered by the resellers.

    My wife came back from the park last week where she saw a teenage boy with his gran in the park flying a DJI flame wheel.

    What would have happened if he had lost control and flown it into a child, what if it had flown away into the path of a light aircraft, what if he was flying in an air traffic zone.

    Making an assumption here but guessing he wasn’t insured or knew the regulations.

    Ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law but he didn’t know, he was playing with a ‘toy’ he bought online.

    Sad to say these will end up being even more regulated.

    Sorry to push this link but in the UK this is what you need to know:

  3. I actually think for pros in the USA this is not a good result. The ruling was that the aviation authority didn’t have jurisdiction even though they have been running what seems to be a reasonable consultation on regulations.

    The problem is now there seems to be no agency with jurisdiction which means there is no legal framework to professionally operate a done system without being at risk from litigation for just about anything.

    In a litigation heavy culture that’s not good both from general risk and trying to get insurance.

    Regulations are a pain but don’t forget they work both ways and protect the operator that sticks to them too.

    I think the CAA are doing a reasonable job given that the technology and price at which it is available is changing faster than regulations can easily update. I’d rather have it a bit over the top now and let it evolve than have lax regulation and then have it banned after a high profile accident and media pressure to “do something”. I can see the red top headlines already…

  4. I have been living in Costa Rica for over 5 months. A drone hovered over my swimming pool inside my private estate for several minutes . This violates my privacy and ability to swim in the buff. If it returns, I will shoot it down.

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