Texas EquuSearch, the nonprofit organization that was recently smacked down by the Federal Aviation Administration for using an unmanned aircraft for volunteer search-and-rescue missions, has filed a lawsuit against the administration today, stating its use of UAS is not in violation of the law.
The lawsuit terms the systems the nonprofit has been flying as “model aircraft” instead of using the language unmanned aircraft systems, an important distinction since the FAA has kept separate operating standards for model aircraft. The agency is in the midst of creating a pathway for the legalization of UAS activities in the National Airspace System, and in recent months has frequently, but not always successfully, put the kibosh on activities it has deemed illegal.
The FAA issued a cease-and-desist order on 17 March, demanding that Texas EquuSearch stop all UAS activities. “This order is no mere anomaly issued by a wayward official,” the Texas EquuSearch response to FAA order states. “It mirrors the FAA’s current position, communicated from the highest levels of the agency in a remarkably adversarial tone, that model aircraft operated for any purpose other than recreation require ‘specific authority’ and are subject to pilot and aircraft certifications as ‘unmanned aircraft systems.’”
The FAA shut down the search-and-rescue operations at that time, saying the activity must be sponsored by a government agency, like previous emergency UAS approval uses.
After that document was released, the law firm representing Texas EquuSearch released a response to the FAA’s order. It states the FAA has been banning businesses from using UAS, but that humanitarian use “falls outside of that ban.” The letter foreshadowed that the firm would file the current lawsuit if no legal remedy was pursued within 30 days.
The suit says that the order by the FAA to desist flights has negatively affected Texas EquuSearch’s ability to operate and has “an immediate and significant impact” on the petitioners’ day-to-day operations.
“Immediate review of the order would confirm that there is no legal basis for the FAA to prohibit the operation of a model aircraft for volunteer search-and-rescue activities,” states the document.
A document attached to the suit contains a letter from the FAA’s NextGen Branch on UAS, dated 21 Feb., that advises Texas EquuSearch to pursue an emergency certificate of authorization if it planned to continue operations.
The suit goes onto call the FAA’s handling of the situation an abuse of discretion. It also alleges that the FAA has a “history of verbal harassment of the Texas EquuSearch team.”
“Texas EquuSearch and the other petitioners have been using one specific technological innovation in its searches since 2005: model aircraft,” says the Texas EquuSearch suit. “A model aircraft, equipped with a camera, is perhaps the single most powerful search-and-rescue tool in the crucial early hours and beyond.”
To date, the organization has coordinated more than 1,400 searches and found more than 300 missing persons. The company has used UAS since 2005 to locate 11 bodies.