Texas search group sues FAA over drone use

HOUSTON — A Texas-based group involved in searches for missing persons around the nation filed a lawsuit on Monday asking a federal court to set aside an order that prohibits the nonprofit from employing drones in its work.

Texas EquuSearch had been ordered in February to stop using unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones, in its searches. The suburban Houston group’s fleet of four unmanned model aircraft that are equipped with cameras has been grounded since then.

The lawsuit filed in a Washington, D.C., appeals court says there is no basis in law to prohibit the operation of model aircraft for humanitarian search and rescue activities. The volunteer group is financed through private donations and has participated in such high-profile cases as the search for Natalee Holloway, the U.S. teenager who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba, and the search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in Florida.

The lawsuit says that Texas EquuSearch’s use of drones falls outside FAA restrictions that say model aircraft may not be operated “by persons or companies for business purposes.”

“This lawsuit seeks to confirm the right of organizations like Texas EquuSearch to use civilian drone technology for the benefit of our nation,” Brendan Schulman, an attorney for the group, said in a statement. “It is also incomprehensible, as a matter of policy and common sense, that the FAA would deem ‘illegal’ the use of a technology that can reunite missing people with their families, after decades of allowing the same technology to be used in the same way for recreational purposes.”

In a statement, the FAA said the agency is reviewing the search group’s appeal.

“The agency approves emergency Certificates of Authorization for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours,” said the FAA. “We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor.”

Schulman has said that solution isn’t feasible, as many law enforcement agencies in rural areas being searched don’t have the authorization certificates to use drones.

Congress has told the FAA to develop a plan to safely integrate commercial unmanned vehicles by the end of September 2015.

But with that plan still more than a year away, the group is facing an extended wait before it can resume using an aerial tool the organization has credited with nearly a dozen successful finds of remains since 2005.

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