Since they have been extremely busy investigating near misses by drone operators, it appeared the FAA could be ready to levy a fine to possibly set an example, and they may have found the ideal candidate. An aerial photography company that had violated congested airspace without permission over 65 times is about to be hit with a record $1.9 million fine. Ouch.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announces the largest civil penalty the FAA has proposed against a UAS operator for endangering the safety of our airspace. The FAA proposes a $1.9 million civil penalty against SkyPan International, Inc. of Chicago – FAA Press Release
From March of 2012 to December of 2014, the FAA says that SkyPan International, an aerial photography company that uses drones to shoot video and still images, violated crowded airspace in New York and Chicago by operating drones over heavily populated cities in a risky and illegal fashion.
Of the 65 alleged flights, the FAA says that forty three of them occurred in heavily restricted Class B Air Space that requires air traffic control clearance, something that SkyPan International did not seek to receive. In addition, SkyPan failed to have their drones outfitted with a two-way radio, transponder, or altitude-reporting equipment, or a necessary airworthiness certification and effective registration, which are required by FAA rules.
“Flying drones in violation of federal regulations “is illegal and can be dangerous. We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.” – Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator
I get where the FAA is coming from. They have their hands full with complaints by pilots of airlines about near misses from foolish drone operators who are flying near airports and brush fires, causing a risk to life and property. And it’s their job to make sure that stuff doesn’t happen. And to make matters worse, the FAA says that SkyPan was directed to cease operations, and they ignored that directive, hence the record fine.
“Technically, they were not in accord with the FAA’s guidance. But it seems a little heavy handed and audacious to be handing out penalties this large when the agency itself has missed a congressionally-mandated deadline to have a rule in place for commercial use.” – Michael Drobac, the executive director of the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Coalition
But here’s the problem: The FAA didn’t announce their comprehensive commercial drone rules and regulations until earlier this year, and the violations that they are alleging go all the way back to 2012. So the FAA is trying to nail SkyPan for violating rules and regulations that weren’t even in place yet.
The FAA is covering their bases in the suit, though, by saying that SkyPan was operating without the necessary Certificate of Waiver or Authorization required for commercial drone operations, a rule that had been in place before the FAA Commercial drone rules were put into effect. Additionally, even under the new rules, SkyPan would have been operating in violation.
SkyPan International has 30 days to respond to the FAA complaint, but a spokesman for the company stated that while SkyPan has had no time to review the complaint, they have been conducting aerial photography in urban areas for 27 years “in full compliance with published FAA regulations,” and that it was “fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public’s safety, security and privacy.” They’ve even put a graphic up on their website stating that they are “Section 333 approved for flight,” something which the FAA disagrees with.
Frankly, this case is more about a warning on all drone operators, and not just SkyPan, to play by the rules. A record $2 million fine grabs headlines, and that’s just what it seems the FAA wants in order to get the little guy’s attention that maybe they could be next. I’m betting the fine gets reduced as SkyPan settles. But the message has been sent, and this is going to definitely be one to watch.