Federal regulators sent a shot across the bow of civilian drone operators Tuesday, proposing a record $1.9 million fine for a company that markets “bird’s-eye views” of some of the country’s most congested airspace and heavily populated cities.
“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. “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 seeking the record civil fine against SkyPan International of Chicago, the FAA said the company conducted dozens of unauthorized drone flights over New York and Chicago, two of the nation’s most heavily trafficked airspaces.
“We haven’t had a chance to review it, so we can’t comment at this time,” Karl Brewick, production manager at SkyPan, said.
The FAA has been struggling to contain the use of drones that are now readily available to hobbyists and commercial operators who use them to meet a wide range of needs, including marketing real estate and covering sporting events.
This summer, two men were charged with attempting to use a drone to smuggle contraband into a Maryland prison. Last month, a drone crashed into an unoccupied section of the stands during a match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. Two days later, a drone crashed into the scoreboard at the University of Kentucky stadium. A drone crash-landed on the White House lawn in January.
But the biggest fear of federal regulators is that a drone will collide with an airplane in flight, possibly bringing down the aircraft with passengers on board.
As of Sept. 27, the FAA had logged 920 reports of drone sightings this year — most coming from commercial or general aviation pilots. An indication of the growing popularity of the unmanned aircraft comes in comparison with 2014, when just 288 sightings were reported.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency is unable to quantify how many drones are in private hands.
“There certainly are thousands, and probably hundreds of thousands,” Dorr said.
SkyPan has 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency. Unless the case is settled, the FAA will look to the Justice Department to file a civil complaint against SkyPan in U.S. District Court.
Dorr said the largest proposed fine before Tuesday’s action was lodged against Xizmo Media, a New York video company. Although that proposed fine was $18,700, he said most fines have ranged from $1,100 to $5,000.
SkyPan markets itself primarily to urban developers who want to use aerial views in their planning, promising to provide “unique, 360-degree, ‘bird’s-eye views.’ ”
“Most clients first use our images for investor presentations . . . site positioning . . . price determination studies and architectural design planning,” the company says on its Web site.
The FAA said SkyPan conducted 65 flights over New York and Chicago to take photos or videos between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014; 43 of them were over the highly restricted New York airspace.
The FAA said the drones used in flights over the two cities did not meet federal requirements.
They were flown without the necessary air-traffic-control clearance and were not equipped with two-way radios, transponders and altitude-reporting equipment. The drones also lacked airworthiness certificates and registrations.
The FAA said SkyPan operated the aircraft in a “careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property.”
A House transportation subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday on ensuring aviation safety in the era of drones, the usage of which is expected to expand after the holiday season puts more of the devices into the hands of people who fly them as a hobby.
The subcommittee on aviation is scheduled to hear from FAA Deputy Administrator Michael G. Whitaker; James Hubbard of the U.S. Forest Service; Tim Canoll of the Air Line Pilots Association; Rich Hanson of the Academy of Model Aeronautics; and Mykel Kochenderfer, a Stanford University professor of aeronautics.