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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Texas Man Inadvertently Demonstrates Wrong Ways to Use Drones

Several local news sources report on a Texas man who lost a drone on the roof of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. and Fox 4 both report on the story. Most of their information comes from this video that the drone operator posted:

At around 47 seconds into the video, the man says that he lost another one of his drones on the roof of the stadium because he let the stadium get in between him and the drone. This resulted in his losing the signal, causing the drone to fall onto the roof or balcony (at the time of the video, the man isn't sure where the drone is). Workers at the stadium later returned the man's drone from the roof.

This gets us to our first way to get in trouble while operating a drone: fly the drone in such a manner that you lose its signal, causing it to fall from the sky in a populated area. Nobody was hurt by this man's drone in this incident. But as his video demonstrates, he is willing to fly his drone carelessly in populated areas, and it is only a matter of time before he ends up hurting a bystander. Moreover, the man's tendency to fly his drones in highly populated areas may get him into trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA, in an advisory circular on model aircraft use urges aircraft operators to avoid flying model aircraft in "populated areas." The FAA seems to imply here and here that this circular applies to drone use, since it lists the circular requirements when discussing drone operation guidelines.

At 3:26 in the video, the man says that he needs to take his drone to a height of about 700 feet in order to get the whole stadium in his shot. After saying this, the drone climbs higher and higher until the entire stadium is in the camera's shot. At 3:42, he says that the height of the stadium is "400 feet or so."

The FAA advisory circular states, "Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface." Throughout the entire video, the man is almost certainly flying his drone much higher than the 400-foot ceiling recommended by the FAA This is the second way this man demonstrates you can get in trouble for flying a drone: take the drone far beyond the 400-foot ceiling recommended by the FAA and, as a bonus, say out loud that you've taken it hundreds of feet beyond that ceiling.

At 3:49, while the drone is rotating, a shadow of a plane appears in the upper right corner of the shot. While the camera never shows the plane itself, the shadow's path reveals that the plane is traveling close to the drone, and the shadow appears when the drone is at its highest point during its filming of the stadium.

Back to that FAA advisory circular! It states: "Give right of way to, and avoid flying in the proximity of, full-scale aircraft." This raises the third way to get in trouble for flying a drone: take the drone beyond the FAA's recommended ceiling in the proximity of full-sized aircraft.

In the background of this entire discussion lurks a fourth way to get in trouble: videotape your dangerous drone-flying habits, record your commentary, and share it with the public on Youtube.

Admittedly, the FAA's advisory circular is not law -- it is a series of recommendations for the use of model aircraft that most likely applies to drones. As I have blogged previously, the National Transportation Safety Board recently ruled that the FAA has not enacted any enforceable regulations against the use of drones. The FAA is appealing that ruling, and questions remain as to whether the advisory circular can be used to interpret the FAA's existing regulations that prohibit the careless or reckless operation of aircraft (Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91, Section 91.13(a)).

While the law may be unsettled, if the courts end up deciding that the FAA's flight regulations are enforceable against drones and are to be interpreted in light of its advisory circular, the man in this video could be in quite a bit of trouble. Federal law aside, a video like this would be excellent evidence in a tort claim if the man's drone ended up falling and causing damage.

Drones can be fun. But using them in a clearly dangerous manner and posting the video online is a pretty foolish thing to do.

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