FAA Seeks Record $1.9M Fine Against Drone Company, Claims It Endangered “The Safety Of Our Airspace”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announced that it has plans to give drone operator SkyPan, an aerial photography firm, a record $1.9 million fine “for endangering the safety of our airspace.”

According to the FAA, SkyPan illegally operated its drones between 2012 and 2014 and in the process, repeatedly violated not just the FAA’s rules, but also operated within the tightly controlled airspace around New York’s and Chicago’s airports.

The FAA says SkyPan conducted a total of 65 unauthorized flights. The majority of those were in the New York Class B airspace around some of the nation’s busiest airports.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement today. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

The company now has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s claims. A company spokesperson tells us that SkyPan has not been able to review the case against it yet. “Until we are able to do so, we are unable to comment on it.”

Update: SkyPan has provided us with a new statement: “SkyPan has been conducting aerial photography above private property in urban areas for 27 years in full compliance with published FAA regulations. SkyPan is fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public’s safety, security and privacy. Images produced by SkyPan have been used to sell or lease commercial and residential real estate throughout North America. You can see our work by visiting www.skypanintl.com

While the FAA had previously fined (or at least tried to fine) other companies for operating what it considers illegal drone flights (after it won a legal fight that gave it the authority to do so), this is the administration’s largest fine yet.

SkyPan mostly operated its flight while the FAA was still working on clarifying its exemption process. By now, the administration has given waivers to almost 1,750 drone operators and it’s adding more every week. SkyPan itself now holds one of the so-called “333” exemptions for flying a remote-controlled Align Trex helicopter.

It’ll still be a while before the FAA will finalize its rules for operating drones in U.S. airspace. Indeed, the FAA missed its congressionally mandated deadline for establishing these rules a few days ago, but at least it has already released a set of proposed regulations that are, for the most part, pretty reasonable.