The subject of what constitutes a small drone commercial operation can’t be broached without relating the story of “FAA v. Raphael Pirker.”

A professional photographer, Pirker was contracted in 2011 by an advertising agency to take aerial footage of the University of Virginia campus for a possible ad with his Zephyr fixed-wing drone and was subsequently violated by the FAA in 2012 for allegedly “endangering people on the ground,” an infraction falling under the careless operation provisions of FAR Part 91.3. “Now the FAA [was] saying that employing drones incidentally for your business is a ‘commercial operation,’ a giant difference from the traditional ‘incidental rules,’” a small drone operator holding a Section 333 exemption groused.

​Pirker retained a lawyer and appeared before a federal administrative law judge who found in favor of the defendant in March 2014, claiming that the Zephyr drone was a model aircraft not subject to the FAA’s rules governing manned aircraft. The FAA then appealed to the NTSB, which appointed a law judge who overturned the first law judge’s decision the following November, subsequently ruling that the enabling act (Part 61) gave the FAA dominion over “any contrivance invented, used or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” Meaning, essentially, that anything that rises off the ground, whether a kite, a balsawood model airplane or a Gulfstream 650, is an “aircraft” and thus subject to FAA oversight. Further — and of particular import to the drone industry and its customers — the interpretation saw no distinction between manned and unmanned aircraft. As a result of the decision, Pirker was slapped with a $10,000 fine.

In January 2015, Pirker and his attorney reached a settlement with the FAA in which the photographer agreed to pay a $1,100 fine without admitting guilt. The FAA also agreed to drop “some” of the accusations against him. The case became a cause célèbre among the model aircraft and recreational and commercial small drone communities, invoking an amicus brief from Arizona attorney Debbie Weecks on behalf of an “anonymous client.” The brief, as well as Weecks’ suggested “carve out” of the proposed FAA small drone regulation can be read on her website.

To view some of the footage that Pirker shot with his drone, access this New York Times video on drone regulation and make your own decision about whether he was operating irresponsibly — and watch out for a very angry goat at its conclusion that has its own solution for regulating annoying drones: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/business/regulators-propose-a-drone-registration-system.html?_r=0.

And here’s a link to a Swedish DJI hexacopter operator’s sojourn “above the clouds to see what it looks like” and the inevitable result: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfxdeRx2fLA

Oh, and by the way, YouTube is full of videos taken by small drone operators blatantly flying close to (and crashing into) high-rise buildings in metro centers, penetrating controlled airspace, climbing to altitudes in the thousands of feet, and buzzing people on beaches and in streets.