The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced the largest civil penalty against an unmanned drone aircraft operator. 

The agency is fining Chicago-based SkyPan International $1.9 million, claiming that between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations in the congested skies of heavily populated cities, including Chicago and New York. These operations allegedly violated airspace regulations and various operating rules, were illegal and were not without risk. 

The flights purportedly involved aerial photography. Of the 65 flights made by Skypan, 43 flew in the highly restricted New York Class B airspace. The FAA claims SkyPan did not receive air traffic control clearance for those flights.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the federal aviation regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

Additionally, the agency alleges the aircraft was not equipped with a two-way radio, transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment. The FAA further alleges that on all 65 flights, the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration, and SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.

Such stringent and hefty fines may deter and hinder potential companies using so-called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS.) UAS has the potential to deliver products and enable services that have otherwise been unavailable. They are also becoming popular among civilians as a hobby or engineering experiment. But, by announcing this civil penalty against SkyPan, the FAA has declared to all they are monitoring the skies, even for small drones.

When asked about how this will impact the development and usage of UAS across American skies, the FAA had no comment on what other companies they are monitoring, whether this will affect civilians using drones for recreational purposes, and if they may also be liable for intrusive flights. 

However, a representative of the FAA said “the FAA’s priority is the safety of people in the air and on the ground. We focus on education as the chief tool in helping these new pilots learn the rules of the sky. Educational initiatives like 'Know Before You Fly' and 'No Drone Zone' are aimed at educating the public. In some cases, however, we’ve seen egregious behavior in which individuals who should know better have repeatedly flouted the rules.”

SkyPan issued a statement saying the company “has been conducting aerial photography above private property in urban areas for 27 years in full compliance with published FAA regulations. SkyPan is fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public's safety, security and privacy. Images produced by SkyPan have been used to sell or lease commercial and residential real estate throughout North America."

They had no comment on how this might impact their business, their research and development, and the future of their UAS endeavors. 

SkyPan had 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency.

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