This Fireworks Drone Is Awesome”“and Illegal

An amazing video of eye-level fireworks violates several regulations.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
July 7, 2014, 1:49 p.m.

The coolest video of this Fourth of Ju­ly week­end also hap­pens to be il­leg­al, thanks to fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions that lim­it the use of small air­craft.

Jos Stiglingh’s drone-shot video of a fire­works show cap­tured mil­lions of views as awed watch­ers took in the up-close-and-per­son­al look of the col­or­ful ex­plo­sions. Sparks and smoke whizzed by the cam­era, at­tached to a small, four-ro­tor drone.

But this post-va­ca­tion Monday’s back-to-real­ity mo­ment in­cludes a re­mind­er that drone pi­lots face strict lim­its on how they op­er­ate their air­craft.

While it’s un­clear how high Stiglingh’s drone flew, the FAA lim­its the air­craft to be­low 400 feet.

Joe Rozzi, vice pres­id­ent of Ohio-based Rozzi Fire­works, said he had seen the video and es­tim­ated a show of that nature has shells ex­plod­ing about 500 feet in the air (at times, the drone ap­peared to be above the level of those ex­plo­sions). “I’m sur­prised the drone didn’t get taken out of the sky,” he said. “I thought it was neat.”

However, Con­gress has carved out some ex­emp­tions to the FAA’s abil­ity to reg­u­late “mod­el air­craft” weigh­ing less than 55 pounds. This only ap­plies to re­cre­ation­al flights, and it’s un­clear if Stiglingh’s flight meets this cri­ter­ia. But the 400-foot ceil­ing isn’t the only reg­u­la­tion pi­lots have to worry about.

When Con­gress gave great­er lee­way to mod­el air­planes, it also dir­ec­ted they had to be flown in the line of sight of their op­er­at­or. It’s im­plaus­ible that Stiglingh’s na­ked eye could keep watch on his drone, hun­dreds of feet in the air, at night, in the midst of near-con­stant ex­plo­sions.

Mod­el air­craft pi­lots must also alert air traffic con­trol­lers when they fly with­in five miles of air­ports. It ap­pears the fire­works show was well with­in that range of Palm Beach In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port. Stiglingh hasn’t spe­cified if he ob­tained clear­ance.

In ad­di­tion, the agency says drones should be flown away from pop­u­lated areas. A fire­works show, along with the in­ev­it­able crowds it draws, is un­likely to meet that de­scrip­tion.

The FAA’s rules also pro­hib­it “care­less or reck­less” fly­ing of air­craft; it’s prob­ably not a stretch to say zoom­ing through ex­plod­ing shells could fall un­der that cat­egory. If a rock­et were to strike the drone and veer off course, it could pose haz­ards to people nearby.

Along with the FAA rules, the Coast Guard had also es­tab­lished guidelines for the West Palm Beach, Fla., show, ban­ning any “vehicle, ves­sel, or ob­ject” in des­ig­nated safety zones near the fire­works.

Stiglingh would also face trouble if he tried to use his drone foot­age for profit. Com­mer­cial drones are cur­rently banned by the FAA.

The video — and the FAA’s re­sponse — il­lus­trate a grow­ing prob­lem for the agency. While drone tech­no­logy be­comes more and more ac­cess­ible, most am­a­teur pi­lots don’t have a full aware­ness of the agency’s policies. As such, the agency has been hes­it­ant to pun­ish users who vi­ol­ate its rules (in the com­mer­cial sphere, it’s only tried to pro­sec­ute one vi­ol­at­or so far, while many more have got­ten away with warn­ings — and free pub­li­city).

As a res­ult, the FAA is stuck play­ing reg­u­lat­ory Whac-A-Mole, wait­ing for vi­ol­at­ors to post videos of their ex­ploits and then swoop­ing in to tell them not to do it again. It would be im­possible to mon­it­or or pre­dict every drone activ­ity, and the FAA lacks the re­sources to po­lice all likely drone hot­spots.

For now, the FAA’s best course of ac­tion seems to be to bet­ter edu­cate the pub­lic on its rules — and hope grow­ing aware­ness keeps fli­ers out of trouble spots. The agency did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

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