In a surprise move FAA officials slapped NASA with a $50,000 fine for multiple violations including operating an unregistered drone and flying beyond line of sight without a waiver. As the scientific community was applauding the first unmanned drone flight on Mars, FAA officials were bristling over the flight of the Ingenuity Helicopter, the first unmanned aircraft to be remotely piloted on another planet. FAA officials stated they were making plans to “clamp down” on what they called, “egregious and reckless conduct”.
On February 18th NASA’s Perseverance Rover touched down on the surface of Mars following a journey that took the probe more than 293 million miles and over 6 months. The latest in a series of missions to search for signs of life on Mars includes a twin bladed helicopter named Ingenuity. Ingenuity made the first unmanned flight on another planet on April 1, 2021.
“They can dress it up all they want; the bottom line is this is a drone flight in violation of numerous FAA regulations including: flying beyond line of sight and operating an unregistered drone. You can put lipstick on a drone but it’s still a drone.” A quick search of the drone registration database revealed that NASA had in fact failed to register Ingenuity. According the the FAA’s website https://faadronezone.faa.gov , since Ingenuity weighs more than 250 grams it is not exempt from registration. “Even when you make the conversion to Mars gravity, it still weighs more that 250 grams”, said FAA Deputy Director of UAS Operations Bernard Pfife. “Five and five! It would have taken them five minutes and five bucks to get the drone registered”, Pfife said.
NASA was quick to fire back. “It was a simple oversite. We had deadlines to meet, technical problems to overcome and we are already over budget”, said NASA spokesman Furd Baniff pointing out the complexities of sending an unmanned probe to a planet millions of miles away. “We had no idea the drone had to be registered”.
Baniff pointed out that the Ingenuity would be operating in the view of the camera of the Perseverance Rover, the equivalent of flying a racing drone in what the drone community refers to as First Person View or FPV. “It’s sort of like double FPV. I mean, the probe is watching the drone and we are watching the probe watch the drone, right? What’s the difference between flying with goggles and watching it on a computer screen? We admit the 11 minute latency might be an issue but there is no other traffic there.”
“The difference is they don’t have a visual observer present at the launch location. They would need a second Mars probe to act as a visual observer in addition to the pilot”, said FAA Deputy Director of UAS Operations Bernard Pfife. While it may be possible to maneuver the Mars Curiosity probe into position to act as a visual observer, that probe is near end of life and it is unlikely that the probe would arrive in time for Ingenuity’s launch window.
But lack of a visual observer isn’t NASA’s only legal problem according to Pfife. “We also have to determine what kind of flight this is. It really depends on the intent of the operator. If the NASA employee executing the controls of the Ingenuity helicopter is being paid or they plan on selling the images or monetize their videos on YouTube, it’s clearly a commercial flight and subject to Part 107 regulations.”
NASA spokesman Baniff suggested the Ingenuity’s pilot might be on break at the time of flight and operating the drone for “enjoyment purposes only”, therefore the flight could qualify as a recreational flight. “The employees have a great time flying the Ingenuity in the simulator. It’s not a big leap to think of this as recreation. After all we are Nerds playing the world’s coolest video game”. Baniff also suggested that since the flight occurred on Mars it might be outside the jurisdiction of the FAA.
But FAA officials disagree. “Nip it, nip it in the bud”, FAA Deputy Director Pfife quipped. When it comes to jurisdiction, Pfife pointed out that Congress (perhaps intentionally) had omitted the phrase “planet Earth” from the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, a key piece of legislation which laid out a roadmap for future FAA regulations in an effort to integrate drones into the national airspace. In 2019 the FAA’s legal counsel argued that omission of this key phrase adds ambiguity to Congress’ intent thereby extending the FAA’s authority to regulate drones throughout the entire universe. -April Fools.