FAA $1.9M proposed sanction of UAS operator sends a Clarion Message

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“Unenforceable,” “NO TEETH,” “WILD, WILD WEST” and other dismissive epithets about the FAA’s ability/capability to enforce its US rules have been bandied about on the Drone discussion boards and even heard from some experts. As of October 6, 2015, that perception should be adjusted. On that date the Federal Aviation Administration announces the largest civil penalty ($1,900,000) which the FAA has proposed against a UAS operator for endangering the safety of our airspace. The basis for this fine against SkyPan International, Inc. of Chicago includes:

  • “…65 unauthorized commercial UAS flights over various locations in New York City and Chicago between March 21, 2012 and Dec. 15, 2014.  The flights involved aerial photography. Of those, 43 flew in the highly restricted New York Class B airspace.”
  • “…operated the 43 flights in the New York Class B airspace without receiving an air traffic control clearance to access it…”
  • “… the aircraft was not equipped with a two-way radio, transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment.”
  • “…on all 65 flights, the aircraft lacked an airworthiness certificate and effective registration…”
  • “…SkyPan did not have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for the operations.”
  • “SkyPan operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property…”

SkyPan has 30 days to respond to these serious allegations. It is expected that the company will vigorously deny these allegations.

The timing of this announcement may be intentional or if accidental, quite propitious!! Are the below two points just interesting coincidences?

  • Marke “Hoot” Gibson was sworn in last week as the Federal Aviation Administration’s Senior Advisor on UAS Integration; his job description is to connect the FAA to the drone community.
  • The Commercial UAV Expo opened on October 5 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Walking around on the convention floor will be 1,500 attendees (47% at the Director level or higher and 70% directly involved in purchasing decisions). Their companies include many large enterprise technology leaders from key growth sectors for UAS integration:  Surveying & Mapping; Civil Infrastructure;  Mining; Construction; Process, Power & Utilities; Precision Agriculture; Law Enforcement, Security and Search & Rescue (SAR) plus 120 exhibitors, more than any commercial drone show in the market.

The Administrator’s message will likely be circulating among these delegates:

s22“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous…We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

The FAA, either intentionally or by accident, has made it clear that it will regulate UASs forcefully and effectively.

Another insight, or perhaps better labeled as a “probing question,” derives from the text circled on SkyPan’s web page. As of April 17, 2015, the FAA granted that aerial photography company a §333 exemption.


Exemption No. 11352, Regulatory Docket No. FAA−2014−1102, lists 28 conditions which SkyPan must comply under the exemption. That issuance of authority, a discretionary act by the FAA, raises some serious issues:

  • Did the FAA, back in April, know about these 65 flights operated in derogation of the FARs?
  • Did those past violative acts cause the FAA to worry about the applicant’s compliance disposition?
    • If yes, why issue this license?
  • If the FAA is successful in proving its allegations, would that provide the FAA with a basis to revoke SkyPan’s §333?
  • If the FAA is successful in proving its allegations, would that provide the FAA with a basis to deny the Part 107 application for commercial sUAS authority?

These are more than hypothetical questions; the answers to them could have immediate, substantial impact on other UAS operators who believe they can ignore the rules. Affirmative answers to the above four questions would have greater, immediate deterrent impact on marginal and blatant violators than the collection of $1,900,000. As noted here before, “Be careful out there. The FAA’s attitude toward inappropriate UAS flying is very hawkish.”

This announcement will precipitate reactions from the UAS industry; the press releases and quotes will be very telling. If Mr. Gibson is in Las Vegas, he will have a chance to interact with Drone nation and hopefully that experience will be better than the Air France head of HR recently received.


Press Release: FAA Proposes $1.9 Million Civil Penalty Against SkyPan International for Allegedly Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft Operations

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