Faced with a proposed fine of $1.9 million for illegal drone flights in New York City and Chicago areas, SkyPan International has settled with the FAA for a fraction of that amount, plus future penalties should it breach the city skies again. The FAA isn’t messing around when it comes to flying a drone illegally.
Like many in this exploding industry, SkyPan is an aerial photography company which deploys drones to shoot commercial video and still image photography. But in 2014, SkyPan was accused of violating the city airspace of New York and Chicago, over 65 times, operating their fleet over heavily populated areas.
“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation 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 Huert, FAA Administrator, in an October 2015 statement
FAA rules state that flying over a heavily populated area is illegal. And even though the FAA hadn’t finalized those rules until 2016, the Class B airspace with which the FAA says that SkyPan operated in for 2/3s of the flight requires air traffic control clearance, something that SkyPan failed to receive.
Additionally, they were in violation of basic flight rules for the ear which required an aerial vehicle to be outfitted a two-way radio, transponder, or altitude-reporting equipment, as well a necessary airworthiness certification and effective registration, which are required by FAA rules.
The incident has been part of an onslaught of hundreds of near misses the FAA has investigated. These incidents, which include drones hitting planes and crashing into venues, have been caused by wayward drone operators who have violated restricted airspace. These include near airports, over fire areas, and near events that have large crowds.
Last year, the FAA also finalized drone operation rules which require registration of drones between .5 and 55 pounds, certification for commercial drone operations, and to fly under 400 feet and within line of sight. Other rules are also in place, for recreational drone pilots, including applicable local and state laws.
For SkyPan, though, the last three years has been going back and forth in court, with the FAA seeking flight records to support their case, with SkyPan claiming that being a small operation with only “one full time employee,” that would take time. Eventually, the company complied with the subpoena and the legal action was set aside.
“SkyPan seeks to maintain the utmost levels of safety, security, and privacy protection in its operations. To that end, we are pleased to join with the FAA to promote compliance with safety regulations governing UAS operations. All pilots—those operating both manned and unmanned aircraft—have a fundamental responsibility to abide by FAA’s regulations to assure a single set of operational allowances and restrictions that may protect the flying public, as well as people and property on the ground.” – SkyPan statement announcing the settlement
Now, after a little over two years since the FAA proposed the fine, SkyPan has agreed to settle the case for a $200,000 fine and admission of wrong doing. In addition, the company agrees to pay a fine of $150,000 should it violate FAA rules within the next year. The company has also agreed to participate in a drone safety program, producing three public service announcements that will teach other drone operators how to best comply with Federal FAA Rules for Drone use (known as Part 107).
The FAA found a solid example to be made to follow the rules, and it cost SkyPan. But let’s be honest, it could have been much worse.
Hat Tip: Ars Technica