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.
What We're Following See More »
Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”