FAA proposes an industry record $1.9 million fine against aerial photography drone company

Oct 6, 2015

Liron Samuels

Liron Samuels is a wildlife and commercial photographer based in Israel. When he isn’t waking up at 4am to take photos of nature, he stays awake until 4am taking photos of the night skies or time lapses. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Facebook.

FAA proposes an industry record $1.9 million fine against aerial photography drone company

Oct 6, 2015

Liron Samuels

Liron Samuels is a wildlife and commercial photographer based in Israel. When he isn’t waking up at 4am to take photos of nature, he stays awake until 4am taking photos of the night skies or time lapses. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Facebook.

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FAA-Fine

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a press release today announcing the proposed massive fine against SkyPan International for “allegedly unauthorized unmanned aircraft operations”.

The company is being accused of conducting 65 unauthorized commercial flights, which involved aerial photography, over Chicago and New York’s highly restricted Class B airspace.

“These operations were illegal and not without risk,” the FAA said, and the company now has 30 days to respond to the agency.

In the press release, the FAA described the fine as “the largest civil penalty the FAA has proposed against a UAS operator for endangering the safety of our airspace”.

The flights at hand were conducted between March 21, 2012 and December 15, 2014, of which 43 took place in highly restricted airspace in New York. According to the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, Class B airspace “is generally airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet MSL surrounding the nation’s busiest airports in terms of airport operations or passenger enplanements”.

The FAA continued to blame SkyPan for “unauthorized operations in some of our most congested airspace and heavily populated cities, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules”, and claimed that on all 65 of the flights the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration, and that the company did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.

USA Today adds that SkyPan uses an Align T-Rex 700E F3C drone, and that it applied for an FAA exemption to fly drones on December 22, 2014.

The company creates 360° VR panoramas and the website states their “own proprietary Remote Piloted Vehicles (RPV) are ushering in a whole new world of aerial and panoramic photography”. Sadly for them it might also be ushering in a whole new world of financial pain.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, which I understand but the next part left me a bit confused. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

There’s no doubt that New York’s airspace is sensitive, but how did a private company conduct 43 aerial operations in highly restricted airspace, said to be the “safest in the world”, without being shot down?

I’m also not saying that the fine is out of place, but if the skies are monitored so carefully and the company “operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property” as the FAA alleged, why was SkyPan allowed to conduct so many flights before the fine was proposed?

It seems that the FAA might have learned about SkyPan’s flights only when the company applied for a flight exemption.

Another interesting piece of information that I find lacking from the press release is how the FAA came to the amount of $1.9 million? Was the company’s income taken into account and did the locations of the alleged violations determine the final number?

Does this mean drone operators should now expect a fine of roughly $29,000 per unauthorized flight?

We, like the FAA, eagerly await SkyPan’s response.

[via USA Today | Image based on photo by Nick Ares]

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Liron Samuels

Liron Samuels

Liron Samuels is a wildlife and commercial photographer based in Israel. When he isn’t waking up at 4am to take photos of nature, he stays awake until 4am taking photos of the night skies or time lapses. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Facebook.

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9 responses to “FAA proposes an industry record $1.9 million fine against aerial photography drone company”

  1. Tincan Avatar
    Tincan

    how did a private company conduct 43 aerial operations in highly restricted airspace, said to be the “safest in the world”, without being shot down?

    Firing a weapon in New York city – whether to shoot down a drone or for some other reason – would quite likely result in jail for the shooter. The legal issues are still very clouded, but in general it seems that since a drone doesn’t present a direct threat shooting one down, even on your own property, is going to be illegal most places. Some states are considering laws that would permit shooting drones, but I cannot imagine New York being one of those.

    1. bwana Avatar
      bwana

      Shooting down a drone of this size and weight also poses a serious threat to anyone unfortunate enough to be under it at the time!

  2. FearUncertaintyDoubt Avatar
    FearUncertaintyDoubt

    Seriously? You are advocating just blasting aircraft out of the sky rather than the acutally-sane approach of finding the violator and subjecting them to civil fines for illegal behavior? If the drone flights carried risk because they were near airports, then shooting them down is even riskier. Really dumb and ignorant comment Mr. Samuels.

    Who knows exactly when the FAA was made aware of the flights, and who knows when they actually were able to identify the owner/pilot? They may have known about the flights but didn’t know whose drones they were. You make it sound like the FAA was somehow entrapping SkyPan into flying all those flights by not immediately acting. Sorry, the law is clear and just because there wasn’t immediate enforcement doesn’t mean one is liable for their behavior. Probably the FAA was making a case and making sure they weren’t shooting from the hip.

    The fine is steep that’s for sure but I have no pity for commercial drone operators who break the law. These guys clearly didn’t care about violating airspace around an airport and didn’t want to register their aircraft. As a resident of the Chicago suburbs, I’d rather not have people taking risks with low flying aircraft in my area.

  3. Ahmet Avatar
    Ahmet

    being shot down – the company, not the drone.

  4. Snow Drift Media Avatar
    Snow Drift Media

    This is Crazy! I have to say that I do somewhat support it though as too many companies and individuals are operating without ensuring safety to the public or going through the right channels

  5. Chris Cameron Avatar
    Chris Cameron

    43 flights, and no reports of deaths, injuries, property damage or even a near miss.
    Unfortunately we live in an age of innovation suppression. So called drones will be ruled out of existence by law makers before they have the opportunity to evolve. If Motorcycles hadn’t existed before now, they wouldn’t have a chance in this day and age.

    1. icwhatudidthere Avatar
      icwhatudidthere

      So people should be allowed to fly things near and around a busy airport and it’s ok as long as there’s no 747s that crash?

  6. Majestic Avatar
    Majestic

    Regulation

  7. bwana Avatar
    bwana

    This airspace is going to get awfully congested when drone deliveries commence, which they no doubt will given the lobbying power of Amazon and such…