WASHINGTON — The government has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate the remote-controlled aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled Tuesday in a setback for small drone operators chafing under FAA restrictions.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which hears appeals of Federal Aviation Administration enforcement actions, ruled that small drones are a type of aircraft and fall under existing FAA rules.
The FAA had fined Raphael Pirker, an aerial photographer, $10,000 for operating his Ritewing Zephyr in a reckless manner at the University of Virginia in 2011. He allegedly flew the drone at ‘‘extremely low’’ altitudes, including under a pedestrian bridge and directly at a person, causing the individual to duck. He had been hired to make photos and videos of the campus.
Pirker appealed, saying his aircraft was no different than a model aircraft and therefore not subject to regulations that apply to manned aircraft. An NTSB administrative law judge sided with him in March, saying the FAA hasn’t issued any regulations specifically for drones.
The FAA appealed to the four-member safety board, which said Tuesday that the definition of aircraft is broad.
‘‘An ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small,’’ the board said. The board sent the case back to the judge to decide if Pirker’s drone was operated recklessly.
The FAA said Pirker operated the drone ‘‘in a careless or reckless manner’’ and the fine ‘‘should stand.’’
The decision strengthens the FAA’s position as it tries to cope with a surge in the use of unmanned aircraft, some weighing no more than a few pounds and costing as little as a few hundred dollars.
More than a million small drones have been sold worldwide in the past few years, and a growing number of them are turning up in US skies. Reports of drones near planes, helicopters, and airfields are reaching the government almost daily — a sharp increase from just two years ago, when such reports were still unusual.
‘‘It’s a huge win for the FAA, and signals it’s not going to be the Wild West for drones, but a careful, orderly, safe introduction of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,’’ said Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA general counsel.
Pirker’s attorney, Brendan Schulman, said the NTSB ruling ‘‘is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to a single aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation.’’
‘‘The more significant question of whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law was not addressed in the decision,’’ he said.
Several cases challenging the FAA’s ban on commercial drones are pending in federal district court in Washington. The only exceptions are two oil companies operating in Alaska and seven aerial photography companies associated with the movie and television industry. Operators of those drones were required to have a pilot’s license, the same as manned aircraft pilots. The craft have to be kept within sight of the operator and may fly no higher than 400 feet.
A wide array of industries are clamoring to use small drones. Amazon.com wants to use drones to deliver small packages, for instance. Congress directed the FAA to integrate drones of all sizes into US skies by fall 2015, but it’s clear the agency won’t meet that deadline.
Congress also directed the FAA to first issue regulations permitting widespread commercial use of small drones, usually defined as weighing less than 55 pounds. Officials have indicated they expect to propose rules before the end of the year. It may be months or years before they are finalized, however.
Meanwhile, the agency is poised to issue special permits to companies that have applied for exemptions to the commercial ban. More than 120 companies have applied, for things like spraying crops and inspecting smokestacks, pipelines, and power lines.