The popularity of unmanned aerial aircraft has grown for both military and non-military applications. They can be used to deliver a fatal blow to terrorists, monitor wildfires or in commercial photography.

But right now the lines are so blurry about when and where remote control aircraft can be used that two federal agencies are at odds with each other. The only kinds of aircraft that are clearly delineated for civilian use are the ones used by hobbyists for recreational purposes.

On Thursday National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick Geraghty dismissed a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) complaint against photographer Raphael Piker. In 2011, Piker was slapped with a $10,000 FAA fine for flying his Ritewing Zephyr II remote control aircraft on the University of Virginia campus to take photo and video footage that he then sold to the university.

The ruling will move forward the debate over the commercial use of unmanned aerial drones. Under current rules drones may be flown in U.S. airspace only for non-commercial recreational use. Even police departments who want to use drones in law enforcement activities must get permission from the FAA to fly them. Universities, too, must get permission to test this technology for research purposes.

The judge’s dismissal was based on whether or not the FAA has authority to regulate drone flights.

According to the court document, Piker requested a dismissal of the FAA penalty, “in the absence of a valid rule for application of FAR [Federal Aviation Regulation] regulatory authority over model aircraft flight operations.”  

The move hinges on the FAA definition of “model aircraft,” which have traditionally been excluded from rules governing manned aircraft. For example, the FAA established in 1982 rules for light sport aviation aircraft, such as ultralights and gliders, but excludes remote control aircraft for recreational use.

Now that the technology has made it possible and affordable for people like Riker to use RC aircraft to take bird’s-eye photographs, the FAA is grappling with how to enforce safety as these aircraft become more popular and have higher altitudes and longer ranges.

“Because they are inherently different from manned aircraft, introducing UAS into the nation’s airspace is challenging for both the FAA and aviation community,” the FAA said in January. The FAA could appeal the ruling.

The agency is hesitant to allow large-scale use of drones out of concern for safety. Considering the potential commercial and civil use of drones, the FAA will soon need to draw up the rulebook. This ruling could be the start of that process.