The FAA Finds Commercial Drone Flights Hard to Police

The government struggles to stop a surge in illegal unmanned flights
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.

Some operators plead ignorance of the law. Others claim their flights are permitted under exemptions for hobbyists. Flying model aircraft below 400 feet and away from populated areas is generally permitted, provided it’s for recreation only. There’s not much the FAA can do to stop people from flouting the rules. The agency tells them to stop when it learns about illegal flights, it said in an e-mail. According to FAA data, it did so 17 times in the 13 months that ended in July.

But for every time the FAA orders an operator to stand down—as it did when a Michigan florist staged a delivery by drone on Feb. 8 as a promotional stunt—untold others fly below the radar, says Patrick Egan, who organizes an annual unmanned aircraft expo in San Francisco. The FBI opened an investigation on March 4, 2013, after the pilots of an Alitalia flight nearing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport spotted a multirotor copter that came within 200 feet of their Boeing 777. At least six other pilots or airline crews have reported close calls since September 2011 with what they say were small unmanned aircraft, according to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. Doug Davis, who ran the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office in the mid-2000s, says the agency doesn’t have the resources to go after everyone who’s breaking the law. “The reality is, there is no way to patrol it,” he says.

Some businesses that fly drones make no attempt to hide it. Freefly Cinema, an aerial photography company in Los Angeles and Seattle, has photos on its website of helicopter drones it says it used to film scenes for The Wolf of Wall Street and a commercial for Honda Motor. Freefly President Tabb Firchau declined to comment. A Freefly drone also shot footage for a documentary about the Battle of Gettysburg that aired on PBS in November, says the filmmaker, Jake Boritt. He says he got permission from the U.S. National Park Service: “It’s not something that we did a whole lot of research into.” The Park Service didn’t check with the FAA about aviation regulations either, Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

For Hollywood the benefits of using drones are worth the minuscule risk of being caught, says an operator who films scenes for TV shows and commercials and who asked not to be identified because the practice isn’t permitted. An unmanned aircraft system costing a few thousand dollars or less can replace dollies, booms, and stabilization equipment costing tens of thousands, he says.

“The longer the FAA takes to write the safety rules for small unmanned aircraft, the more difficult it will become to regulate this industry,” says Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group that represents drone makers. The FAA had planned to propose rules by 2011 allowing commercial flights of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The agency now doesn’t expect to release the proposal until November. It will also likely miss a Congress-imposed deadline to spell out rules for safely integrating drones into the nation’s airspace by 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general said in a report on Feb. 5.

Even without those regulations, the FAA says it has the authority to prohibit commercial unmanned aircraft operations and “careless or reckless” flights. The copter drone that hit Peskoff was owned by a local filmmaker hired to produce aerial views of the event for a promotional video. The drone crashed when its batteries died. The FAA says it spoke with the operator and explained the rules. “It was kind of lucky,” Peskoff says. “It hit three adults instead of a child.”


    The bottom line: Companies across the country are using drones for business, despite a federal ban on unmanned flights in the U.S.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.