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FAA proposes record fine against drone operator

Last Updated Oct 6, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday proposed a record $1.9 million fine against an aerial photography company for flying drones in crowded New York and Chicago airspace without permission.

SkyPan International Inc. of Chicago operated 65 unauthorized flights between March 2012 and December 2014 in some of the nation's most congested airspace, the FAA said in a statement.

Forty-three flights were in the heavily restricted Class B New York airspace without air traffic control clearance, the agency said. Class B airspace is generally from the ground up to 10,000 feet in altitude and in an approximate 40 mile radius around an airport.

The company is accused of operating aircraft "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property."

The drones also lacked the two-way radio, transponder and altitude-reporting equipment required of manned aircraft.

Flying drones in violation of federal regulations "is illegal and can be dangerous," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations."

Reached by CBS News correspondent Kris Van Kleave for comment, SkyPan spokesman Karl Brewick said "he's had better days." He declined further comment, saying the company has not had a chance to review the civil filing, and cannot comment until they have.

SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the FAA.

The previous largest fine for drone operations was $18,700 against Xizmo Media, a New York video production company, the FAA said.

The fine announcement comes one day before an FAA official is expected to face tough questioning at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on safety hazards created by drones.

In August, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told CBS News that the Department of Transportation was reviewing whether the FAA has the authority to require drones be registered at their point of sale.

Currently, drones are considered hobby aircraft and are exempt from registration because they are supposed to be operated below 400 feet. As CBS News has reported, airspace rules are being widely violated. As of August, a record of at least 650 drone sightings had been reported by pilots in 2015. That's compared to 238 in all of 2014.