The FAA has used its executive power to make search and rescue drones illegal by grounding a Texas nonprofit search and rescue operation. The offending drones are five-pound styrofoam drones.
Texas EquuSearch Mounted Sear and Recovery Team is a nonprofit company that specializes in assisting missing person searches. The vision of the group is to return those missing back to their loved ones with experienced, organized and ethical volunteer search efforts for missing persons using the most suitable and modern technologies. The technology in question now is search and rescue drones.
The group began using drones and unmanned aircraft in 2006 to assist with search and rescue operations. In February, the FAA told EquuSearch in an email that, "if you are operating outside of the COA provisions, stop immediately. That is an illegal operation regardless if it is below 400ft AGL, VLOS or doing volunteer SAR. " In order to use a drone, a certificate of authorization must be obtained from the FAA either in writing or electronically which can be done "in short order, even on the weekends & holidays." Otherwise an option would be to use one of the more than 500 eligible certificate holders to supply the drones for search operations such as law enforcements.
Manned aircraft must stay at least 500 feet above the ground which may have led to the misconception of the FAA's jurisdiction ending below 400 feet in the air. The FAA has asserted that is is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the "ground up." The FAA has been grounding drones and their commercial use with cease-and-desist letters to photographers, journalists and even tornado researchers according to The Wall Street Journal based on Title 49 of U.S. Code, section 40102(a)(6).
Once the existing in science fiction, drones have become a hot topic as they have become commonplace in military use as well as for photographers and other hobbyists. During the riots in Istanbul, a drone was used to capture amazing footage of the riots before being shot down by police. More recently, a drop that was filming the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Australia crashed to the ground causing an athlete to be injured.
Search and rescue drones have been one of the most celebrated uses of the technology. Instead of relying on expensive helicopters, drones can map a search grid quickly and get eyes in the sky earlier. With the FAA grounding these search and rescue drones, EquuSearch has retained attorney Brendan Schulman who convinced a federal judge to strike down a $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker who was filming promotional material for UVA. The letter sent to the FAA was posted on the law firm's site.
The FAA has stated that the rules of drone usage will not be available until late 2015. Until then, the adoption of the technology races ahead and may outpace the rules being researched by the FAA. If the FAA does not rescind the ban, EquuSearch has made it clear they will bring legal action against the FAA in the form a lawsuit.