Drone Company Faces $1.9 Million Fine for Unsanctioned Flights

The FAA has proposed its largest ever fine of a company for unauthorized drone flights.

Chris McKay AFP/Getty
Oct. 6, 2015, 11:11 a.m.

The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion on Tues­day an­nounced its largest fine ever against a drone op­er­at­or, show­ing that the agency is not afraid to crack down on the boom­ing com­mer­cial drone in­dustry.

The agency plans to fine SkyPan In­ter­na­tion­al, an aer­i­al-pho­to­graphy com­pany, $1.9 mil­lion for con­duct­ing 65 un­au­thor­ized flights in New York City and Chica­go between 2012 and 2014. The flights in con­ges­ted air­space threatened lives and prop­erty, the FAA al­leged. 

The FAA has is­sued dozens of waivers in re­cent months to al­low Hol­ly­wood stu­di­os and oth­er com­pan­ies to op­er­ate drones, but for most cases, there is a blanket fed­er­al ban on the com­mer­cial use of drones. SkyPan did ob­tain a waiver in April 2015, but all of the al­leged un­au­thor­ized flights oc­curred be­fore that date.

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

In 2012, Con­gress dir­ec­ted the FAA to de­vel­op reg­u­la­tions to al­low for com­mer­cial drones in U.S. air­space by Septem­ber 30 of this year. The FAA, which is still work­ing on the new rules, missed the dead­line, mean­ing that its ban is still in place. People can fly a small drone for re­cre­ation­al pur­poses as long as they fol­low rules, like keep­ing it with­in sight and fly­ing no high­er than 400 feet.

While many law­makers have been ur­ging the FAA to move more quickly to al­low broad­er leg­al use of drones, oth­ers have been alarmed by the in­creas­ing num­ber of near col­li­sions between drones and air­planes. “I call on the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion to take ag­gress­ive ac­tion to pro­tect every­one who re­lies on safe and se­cure skies,” Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al, a Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crat, wrote in a let­ter in Au­gust.

SkyPan has 30 days to re­spond to the FAA’s com­plaint. “SkyPan has been con­duct­ing aer­i­al pho­to­graphy above private prop­erty in urb­an areas for 27 years in full com­pli­ance with pub­lished FAA reg­u­la­tions. SkyPan is fully in­sured and proud of its im­pec­cable re­cord of pro­tect­ing the pub­lic’s safety, se­cur­ity and pri­vacy,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

Mi­chael Drobac, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Small Un­manned Aer­i­al Vehicle Co­ali­tion, a lob­by­ing group that un­til re­cently in­cluded SkyPan, called the fine “as­tro­nom­ic­al” and “heavy-handed.”

“Tech­nic­ally, they were not in ac­cord with the FAA’s guid­ance,” Drobac ad­mit­ted. “But it seems a little 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.”

—This art­icle has been up­dated with a com­ment from SkyPan

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