Unlike other hardened lawbreakers, drone enthusiasts don’t always bother to hide the evidence. YouTube is blanketed with crimes against American airspace committed by private owners of unmanned aerial vehicles, which hasn’t escaped the notice of officials at the Federal Aviation Administration. In recent years, the agency has sent letters to scores of drone hobbyists who published videos in which federal flight rules have clearly been violated. Panicked recipients often pull down the proof of their infractions.
That cat-and-mouse game has come to an end. As part of its kinder, gentler stance toward civilian drones, the FAA has set a new policy against involvement in most cases involving drone hobbyists with YouTube hits. John Duncan, director of the FAA’s Flight Standard Service, told inspectors last week that they have no authority to order or suggest that drone videos posted online be removed. A video “is ordinarily not sufficient evidence alone to determine” that a drone flight violated federal rules, he wrote in a memo.
Any incident with a drone that imperils safety in U.S. airspace or creates a hazard for bystanders on the ground is still almost certain to receive a rapid response from regulators. That was the case in 2011, when the FAA leveled a $10,000 fine against a well-known drone videographer, Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, after he flew a drone over the University of Virginia to create a promotional video. The FAA faulted Pirker for unsafe operation of his five-pound drone in the course of commercial business, a distinction with continuing significance for regulators. After disputing the allegations, Pirker earlier this year paid $1,100 to settle the case without admitting guilt. Here’s the footage that prompted an FAA crackdown:
Safety inspectors “are expected to use critical thinking” when they encounter videos of drone flights, according to Duncan’s memo. The new policy came only days after the FAA said it would speed regulatory review of exemption approvals for commercial drone flights, a move the agency said illustrates its “flexible regulatory approach to accommodate this rapidly evolving technology.”
An FAA spokesman, Les Dorr, says the memo on drone videos was designed to ensure consistency in how safety inspectors approach the incidents. “Our goal is to promote voluntary compliance by educating individual [drone] operators about how to operate safely under current regulations and laws,” Dorr says.
Until now, after noticing a video depicting an illicit flight, the FAA has sent an “informational letter” to drone operators, explaining U.S. regulations and the types of operations that require FAA authorization, such as those granted to law enforcement, Hollywood film producers, and energy companies. Beyond the warning letters, FAA inspectors have also called drone flyers and left voice messages about the flights, says Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney who specializes in unmanned aviation law and who represented Pirker.
Recreational drone flights are generally acceptable during daylight hours, as long as pilots operate the machine at least five miles from airports and at altitudes below 400 feet. All this means you can now buzz your drone along the beach—even a nude beach, as this safe-for-work video from Hawaii shows.