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The FAA Finds Commercial Drone Flights Hard to Police

The government struggles to stop a surge in illegal unmanned flights
The FAA Finds Commercial Drone Flights Hard to Police
Photograph by Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

It came from the sky. One moment, Eileen Peskoff was enjoying a hot dog at a Spanish-style running-of-the-bulls festival last August in Petersburg, Va. The next, she was on her back, knocked down when a 4-foot-wide helicopter drone filming the event lost control and dove into the grandstands. “You sign up for something called running the bulls, you think the only thing you’ll get hurt by is a 1,200-pound bull,” Peskoff says.

Commercial drones such as the one that left her and two friends with bruises are prohibited in the U.S. That hasn’t stopped a proliferation of flights nationwide that’s far beyond the policing ability of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is laboring to write long-awaited rules governing flights of unmanned aircraft. Drones, which are available online and at hobby shops, have been used to film scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street and to deliver flowers. They’ve been sent aloft to inspect oil-field equipment, capture sporting events, map farmland, and snap aerial photographs for real estate ads.