An American Airlines pilot prompted a Federal Aviation Administration investigation after spotting a hovering quadcopter as he was coming in for a landing at Nashville International Airport Wednesday

But despite the FAA’s statements, there doesn’t appear to be a federal law barring the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) near airports.

According to News Channel 5 in Nashville, “Under the FAA’s newly modified rules, drones may not operate within five miles of an airport without permission, and should never fly near a manned aircraft.”

The FAA has posted a similar statement online:

However, UAS [unmanned aerial systems] operations are currently not authorized in Class B airspace (PDF), which exists over major urban areas and contains the highest density of manned aircraft in the National Airspace System.

Despite the FAA’s statement, whether or not the FAA has actually lawfully promulgated rules related to UAV/UAS operation near airports is difficult to determine.

The FAA still claims that it is illegal to fly a UAV for commercial purposes, when in fact a federal judge found that the FAA had not set forth any policy with force of law on that issue back in March.

The FAA website, however, states:

You may not fly a UAS for commercial purposes by claiming that you’re operating according to the Model Aircraft guidelines (below 400 feet, 3 miles from an airport, away from populated areas.)  Commercial operations are only authorized on a case-by-case basis. A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.

While the issue of whether the FAA has in fact created effective law in this area may end up being decided in court, it is advisable for PINAC readers not to fly quadcopters in the vicinity of an airport.

 The FAA is trying to find the operator of the drone to determine if there was any sinister motive involved.

According to News Channel 5:

The pilot stated it was hovering “at about 300 feet,” and was “black in color and approximately 2-foot by 2-foot in diameter and having four arms with rotors.”

He avoided the drone and landed safely. Security expert Buford Tune understands why the FAA takes the drone so seriously.

“You could put explosives on it. Anything you can imagine can be put on it,” said Tune.

Tune said drone technology continues to advance. Most anyone can buy a drone these days for photography or just fun; the concern is someone with more sinister motives.

“If you have a drone flying around an airport you have a big concern about security,” said Tune.

For news tips on aerial photography and drones, contact Andrew Meyer, PINAC’s staff writer covering UAV photography, the First Amendment, and more. Follow him on twitter @theandrewmeyer.