It's perhaps a sign of the times that the same-sex wedding of a member of Congress should be newsworthy because of legal issues surrounding a drone.
But so it is. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) got married to his partner on June 21, and, as one does, hired a photographer to document the scene. That photographer then hired Parker Gyokeres, an active duty member of the Air Force who runs an aerial photography company called Propellerheads, to do some aerial shots of the ceremony. And he did.
Why the headlines? Because the FAA prohibits the use of unmanned drones ("unmanned aircraft systems" in the agency's vernacular) for commercial purposes. Gyokeres' video was something of a giveaway to the agency, which on Wednesday announced (indirectly) that it was looking into the situation to "determine if there was any violation of federal regulations or airspace restrictions."
One of the interesting twists in this case is that Maloney helps oversee the FAA as a junior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation subcommittee. And in case Maloney wasn't aware previously, the FAA's much-debated and hazy rules around unmanned aircraft could probably use a little more oversight.
Attorney Brendan Schulman leads the Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice at the New York law firm Kramer Levin. Speaking with the Post by phone, Schulman was blunt. "The issue is that there hasn't been any rulemaking with regards to unmanned air systems," he said, despite it having been on the agency's agenda for about a decade. "We're now at a point in which there's tremendous interest in commercial applications" for UAS flights -- "as well as humanitarian applications." In April of this year, a company called Texas Equusearch retained Schulman to sue the government to overturn an FAA prohibition on using UAS's to search for missing people. His obvious goal: Clarify the boundaries of what is and isn't allowed.
We should explain two things before we continue. First, how the FAA outlines its existing prohibitions, and, second, what exactly we're talking about when we refer to a drone or UAS.
We'll start with the second. The word "drone" has become ubiquitous, prompting two general associations. The first, of course, is silent, plane-like vehicles that coast above countries in the Mideast, killing people. The second is those little helicopter-like things that guys in glasses and Dr. Who T-shirts take to the park on the weekends. But those are two ends of the spectrum. What is at stake here lies in between.
"It's a hexacopter," Gyokeres, the videographer, told us about the craft he used for Maloney's wedding when reached by phone. "It's about five times the size of a DJI Phantom." Gyokeres' UAS is custom-built, 30-inches wide, 14 pounds, and with six small helicopter blades that propel it. It flies for nine minutes, with two people operating it: One controls the craft, the other monitors the live video stream to provide guidance on where it should be flown.
"I am obsessive about safety, which is what the FAA cares about," he said. And so he follows several rules when flying, including that he maintains "line-of-sight" with the craft (meaning he can see it) "at all times" and that the device is restricted in how high it can go. "I have a GPS limiter on my vehicle that does not allow me to fly higher than 130 meters. It cannot go higher than 400 feet." (The steeple on the church in the video, he estimated, was about 100 feet high.)
Which brings us to the FAA's current guidelines. There are at least three classes of groups that use a UAS in the FAA's eyes. There are hobbyists, who fall under a 1981 "circular" outlining operating standards. For example: "Do not operate model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface." In June, thanks in part to confusion over the rules, the agency released "dos and don'ts" for hobbyists, which includes a "don't" about letting your drone leave your sight.
The second group is public agencies (police forces, for example), that want to use larger UASs. They can request a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization from the FAA, and the FAA grants or rejects it. As of last December, there were 545 active certificates in the United States.
Recently, the FAA extended that opportunity to the third group: commercial operators like Gyokeres. They can now petition the FAA for the right to use a UAS. But that's a recent development. For those without that approval, the FAA has cracked down. A recent comment on Gyokeres' video is revelatory. "Great video, seriously spectacular," a user named Glenn Martin writes. But: "Don't we know by now not to put these on the Internets for the FAA to try and hit you with the ban hammer?"
"The typical response is a cease-and-desist letter," Schulman told us. "In a couple of other cases there have been subpoenas asking for documents or testimony." He would know: Schulman also represents the respondent, a commercial videographer like Gyokeres who filmed scenes at the University of Virginia, in a dispute with the FAA.
"The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system," a statement from the FAA provided to the Post reads. While Schulman argues that the agency doesn't have a regulatory right to crack down on drone operators, given that it hasn't developed regulations yet, the FAA leverages its authority over the safety of the airspace. In the case of Schulman's U.Va. client, the threat to safety was due to the drone's proximity to things that it might hit. It was flown "within approximately 15 feet of a UVA statue," "within approximately 50 feet of railway tracks," and "directly towards a two-story UVA building below rooftop level and made an abrupt climb in order to avoid hitting the building."
Gyokeres is very aware that this is the agency's goal. He explained his various precautions: having a clear path to a safe landing zone, never flying above people (he explained where he flew over the reception in the video to meet this standard), and never letting children near the copter. ("It's straight sorcery for a child.") "I carry half a million dollars in insurance," he told us. "The only difference is that the FAA says that since I'm taking a dollar for it I'm unsafe. I'm unauthorized. I'm unallowed."
In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act which, among other things, mandated that the FAA "accelerate the integration" of UASs into the airspace system. Sean Patrick Maloney hadn't yet been elected to Congress; his predecessor in New York's 18th voted against the bill.
The FAA hasn't contacted Parker Gyokeres yet, but he is ready for them to do so. "They want to crush me like a bug," he told us. "I say, I'm going to throw spikes and stink before they step on me."
"I will not go quietly into the night."