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FAA grounds humanitarian search-and-rescue drone flight

FAA grounds search and rescue

The FAA has barred search-and-rescue volunteers Jacob Elson, left, and Gene Robinson from flying this 5-pound Spectra styrofoam drone.

Rescue mission’s attorney says the FAA’s move is “absurd” and “without legal basis.”

A Texas group that searches for missing people is fighting a Federal Aviation Administration order to stop using drones for its searches, adding a new challenge to the agency’s authority to prohibit drones in the U.S.

The group, Texas EquuSearch, has been using small drones, or unmanned aircraft, since 2006 to map search areas and conduct searches itself.

The Federal Aviation Administration is grounding the nonprofit Texas volunteer search-and-rescue outfit that employs five-pound styrofoam drones, but the group is fighting back and maintains that “there is no legal basis” for the FAA’s position.

The legal tussle between Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team and aviation authorities continues to brew a month after a judge nullified FAA regulations barring the commercial use of small, unmanned drones (PDF).

Texas Equusearch Mounted Search & Recovery TeamEquuSearch, which does not charge for its services, says it has found more than 300 persons alive in some 42 states and eight countries. Often, it uses small drones to find the missing.

“This technology gives us a better chance at finding missing people alive without the high cost of using helicopters, which are often not even available, and making the best and safest use of our volunteer searchers’ time during the critical first hours,” said the group’s founder, Tim Miller. “The drones help me fulfill the promise I make to families that I will use every resource available to bring home their missing loved ones.”

The spat could further embolden entrepreneurs and companies that are growing restless with the FAA’s “pace in setting rules for unmanned aircraft.”

But in February the FAA sent the group’s pilot, Gene Robinson of Texas, a letter telling him that drone use was “illegal,” (PDF) despite the FAA allowing hobbyists to fly drones for fun.

“I think it’s absurd,” said EquuSearch attorney Brendan Schulman.

Schulman recently sent the FAA a letter, demanding that it reverse or rescind this unlawful directive (PDF) because of “the urgent nature of the humanitarian work performed by the Texas EquuSearch Team.”

Schulman said he would take legal action if the agency doesn’t act. And the group might still launch a drone despite the FAA’s orders, he said.

“If there’s an opportunity to save a life, they may be compelled to proceed,” Schulman said. “We have given the agency a chance to respond and do the right thing. We haven’t heard back from them.”

The FAA said the search-and-rescue group could contract with a government agency and apply for a so-called  Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) on a case-by-case basis. Approval, the agency said in an e-mail, is “sometimes in a matter of hours.” Schulman scoffed.

Drone Certificates“The FAA has provided no reason for a bureaucratic approach to using a model aircraft at low altitudes away from airports for humanitarian purposes, and there is no good reason,” he said in an e-mail.

An federal administrative-law judge, Patrick Geraghty, ruled that “the FAA’s ban on the commercial use of drones was not binding because flight officials did not give the public a chance to comment on the agency’s rules. Congress has delegated rule making powers to its agencies, but the Administrative Procedure Act requires the agencies to provide a public notice and comment period first.”

That did not happen when the FAA banned the commercial use of drones in 2007, a judge ruled last month.

The FAA is appealing the decision.




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