In the article, "Drones! A Regulatory Process Struggles to Keep Pace," (Drones) authors Thomas Lehric and David F. Rifkind discuss the struggles the FAA has had in regulating this fast growing industry. They also bring to light things the average citizen should be keeping in mind as well.
When I think of drones, I think of military equipment used to bomb foreign targets. I had no idea that a drone, otherwise known as an "unmanned aircraft system" or "UAS," could be a model-sized helicopter purchased from Amazon. However, according to the FAA, while these aircrafts may seem harmless to the average consumer, they pose a great risk for the FAA and the aviation community, stating that the U.S. has the "busiest and most complex airspace in the world." (See FAA.gov UAS Subsection).
According to Drones, the FAA has the statutory authority to regulate UASs, and, in November 2014 the National Transportation Safety Board (the appellate agency for FAA enforcement proceedings) agreed with the agency's interpretation when it upheld a stiff penalty of $10,000 imposed against a photographer, Raphael Pirker. Pirker used a drone to take aerial photos of the University of Virginia's campus and was accused of doing so "carelessly and recklessly". (See Michael P. Huerta, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration v. Raphael Pirker, NTSB Order No. EA-5730, Docket CP-217 [Nov. 18, 2014]).
At first glance, I found this ruling disturbing; it seemed like an example of overregulation. Then I was reminded (by someone who has flown planes before) that flying is serious business and a drone sharing airspace with a manned aircraft can be dangerous for those on the plane as well as those on the ground.
Indeed, according to Lehric and Rifkind, pilot drone sightings went from 238 in 2014 to over 650 in 2015, and Virginia Tech researches report that a drone coming into contact with a passing jet engine could cause a catastrophic failure.
I still think a $10,000 fine seems a little unfair, but I can appreciate the seriousness of the matter. In the meantime, you should know that if you do decide to buy a drone, you may need to register it. A UAS that weighs more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA (anything over 55 pounds must be registered as an aircraft, which is done through an entirely different process). You must be 13 years of age or older to register a UAS, and it can be done online.
Click here to find some helpful examples of UASs that must be registered and those that are exempt.
So, if you have your heart set on picking up a drone, do yourself a favor and make sure you are in compliance with FAA regulations- it may save you $10,000 and a lot headache.