Patrick Geraghty, a National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge, said in his order dismissing the $10,000 fine that the FAA has no regulations governing model aircraft flights or for classifying model aircraft as an unmanned aircraft.
FAA officials said they were reviewing the decision and had no further comment. The agency can appeal the decision to the full five-member safety board.
The FAA levied the fine against aerial photographer Raphael Pirker for flying the small drone near the University of Virginia to make a commercial video in October 2011. Pirker appealed the fine to the safety board, which hears challenges to FAA decisions.
FAA officials have long taken the position that the agency regulates access to the national airspace, and therefore it has the power to bar drone flights, even when the drone weighs no more than a few pounds.
"There are no shades of grey in FAA regulations," the agency says on its website. "Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft —manned or unmanned —in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval."
FAA officials have been working for a decade on regulations to give commercial drones access to the national airspace without endangering manned aircraft and the public. Fed up with the agency's slow progress, Congress passed legislation in 2012 directing the FAA to safely integrate drones of all sizes into U.S. skies by September 2015. However, it's clear the agency won't meet that deadline. Regulations that would permit greater use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds have been repeatedly delayed, and are not expected to be proposed until November. It takes at least months, and often years, before proposed regulations are made final.
Regulations governing medium and large-sized drones are also in the works, but are even farther off.
There is increasing demand to use small drones for a wide array of commercial purposes. The FAA has identified the dividing line between a model aircraft and a small drone as more one of intent, rather than of technology. If it is used for commercial purposes, it's a drone. If it's used purely for recreational purposes, it's a model aircraft.
The agency has issued guidelines for model aircraft operators, but they are voluntary and therefore cannot be enforced, Geraghty said.
Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_LowySuggest a correction