The Federal Aviation Administration has already lost one legal battle over domestic drones—but the next fight it has coming its way comes not from a business but from a volunteer organization that has used drones to find missing people.
Over the past nine years, the Texas EquuSearch volunteer search-and-rescue organization in Texas has used drones to find the remains of 11 missing people. The FAA just demanded that it stop immediately.
In an email sent to the organization, Alvin Brunner, the FAA's aviation safety inspector dealing with unmanned aerial vehicles, said that what the organization is doing is an "illegal operation" of drones.
"If you are operating outside of the [FAA's] provisions, stop immediately," he wrote. "UAS operations that are not authorized violate part 91 [an FAA policy statement] and hence are illegal."
That policy statement was the crux of a recent legal battle that the FAA just lost—the FAA has never formally regulated the use of domestic drones and, legally, can merely suggest that they hope people don't use them. Instead, the FAA has insisted that the commercial use of drones is illegal, an assertion that a federal judge struck down last month.
If the FAA already overstepped its bounds with that earlier case, it seems the agency has even less to stand on here: Texas EquuSearch is a completely volunteer organization whose operations aren't "commercial" in any way. And this is not the FAA suggesting that hobbyists and journalists don't fly drones near burning buildings or above car crashes, they are actively going against a well-established organization that has already demonstrated that they can use drones safely for humanitarian purposes.
Monday, the group and its lawyer, Brendan Schulman (who already beat the FAA on the earlier case) warned that they would be suing the FAA if it doesn't "reverse or rescind [its] unlawful directive within 30 days."
"I hope they do the right thing, which would save everyone a lot of trouble," Schulman told me. "But we are prepared to pursue this in court in short order."
Here's the crux of Schulman's argument:
The Team does not use the model aircraft for any 'business' purpose. The purpose is purely humanitarian: to save a life when possible, and to ease the suffering of families by bringing closure when that life can no longer be saved. The distinction that the FAA now draws between Texas EquuSearch's use, and that of a hobbyist, is entirely arbitrary and capricious … To date, photographs taken by the Texas EquuSearch Team model aircraft have directly pinpointed the location of remains of 11 deceased missing people The models have also helped direct volunteer resources in countless other searches—to help volunteers avoid hazards on the ground, to facilitate resource allocation to areas of greatest interest, and to save time during the crucial early hours of the search.
This isn't the first time the FAA has gone after EquuSearch: The agency called the rescue organization at least five times to tell them to not use drones for specific searches (one of those was on the search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in 2008).
It's easy to see why Texas EquuSearch (which has performed 1,350 searches in 42 states and has found more than 300 missing people alive) has been using drones—they're cheaper and quieter than helicopters, can be deployed more quickly, and fly much lower. Some specifically come with cameras that can automatically survey an area with little more than GPS coordinates.
When Timothy Reuter, head of the Washington DC Drone User Group told me last year that we was thinking of starting "the first volunteer drone search and rescue team in the world," it sounded futuristic, and like a perfect way of turning something that people feared into a technology that people celebrate. Turns out, EquuSearch has been doing it with little fanfare and plenty of success. Reuter and a related group in New York City are still exploring starting volunteer search and rescue programs.
The FAA told me that they have received the letter "and will respond to Mr. Schulman." A spokesperson told me that Texas EquuSearch has never formally applied for a certificate of authorization to get express permission from the agency to operate its drone and that the agency "can, and has, issued an emergency COA to a government entity in a matter of hours."
Of course, Texas EquuSearch is not a government entity, so it's doubtful that they could score an emergency COA as easily as a government agency, and they shouldn't have to—as Schulman notes, there is no law saying they can't do what they've been doing. It's one thing to ground a drone that's delivering beer, another to ground a drone that has the express purpose of saving lives.