Drone startup issued biggest fine ever for flying without permission

October 6, 2015, 8:01 PM UTC
A drone is flown for recreational purposes in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York on September 5, 2015.
A drone is flown for recreational purposes in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York on September 5, 2015.
Photograph by Bruce Bennett — Getty Images

Flying your drone without the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval could cost you millions of dollars.

The FAA said on Tuesday that it’s fining drone startup SkyPan International $1.9 million for allegedly conducting 65 drone flights without the required authorization. It makes for the largest civil penalty ever by the FAA on a drone company, the administration said.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement.

Between March 2012 and December 2014, SkyPan allegedly flew drones over parts of New York City and Chicago to take aerial imagery. The startup specializes in panoramic photographs of city skylines.

The FAA said that SkyPan conducted 43 flights in New York City’s restricted airspace without receiving air traffic control clearance. The drones also lacked altitude-reporting equipment, a two-way radio, and other gear mandated by the FAA.

The agency said that SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s enforcement letter. In an email to Fortune, a SkyPan spokesperson said the company has yet to review the case and declined to comment.

In November, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the FAA has authority to regulate drones and agreed with the FAA that drones can be legally defined as aircraft.

The decision was significant because the FAA issued its first fine to a drone operator, Raphael Pirker, only to have that penalty overturned by a federal judge. The National Transportation Safety Board later reversed the ruling again and affirmed the FAA’s authority to regulate drones like it already does with aircraft.

In the most recent case, SkyPan submitted a request to the FAA to fly drones in late December, and was granted permission to fly as of April 17, according to a letter from the FAA. Although SkyPan now has proper authorization, the FAA still plans to fine the company for its prior behavior.

The FAA has issued over 1,400 drone permits to U.S-based businesses, including media companies, insurance firms, and the NFL.

Companies that want to use drones for commercial purposes currently have to seek FAA approval and abide by a series of guidelines, including not flying the aircraft out of the view of operators and making sure the drones don’t fly higher than 500 feet. Amateur drone enthusiasts are not regulated by the FAA, however, and the administration does not require hobbyists to obtain authorization to fly.

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