So far the FAA’s only known case against a UAV photographer/pilot ever to see a courtroom failed. On or about October 17, 2011 Raphael Pirker of Zurich, Switzerland was commercially operating his UAV over the University of Virginia. He was paid to gather video by a communications company.
Pirker was also accused of flying the UAV at extremely low altitudes. The FAA claimed he operated his drone recklessly. Accordingly the FAA issued a civil penalty of $10,000.00 against Pirker. In court however, the judge’s ruling held that the FAA did not follow the law when they promulgated the UAV regulations.
In Denver, CO on March 6th 2014 Federal Judge Patrick G. Geraghty reversed the FAA’s action against Pirker and that nasty fine. The judge also ruled that the FAA has no authority over small, unmanned aircraft.
At this stage the FAA has appealed the ruling and won a stay of the Judge Geraghty’s order pending further review in the U.S. Court of Appeals. That means the FAA can continue their reign of regulatory terror against commercial drone users until the outcome of that appeal. If you are fined by the FAA chances are that the fine could be reversed later.
As a UAV pilot you need to understand your rights. If you do the FAA will have a very difficult time going after you. First and foremost the FAA does not have the resources or manpower needed to chase thousands of UAV pilots. They can barely take care of their real business. They simply don’t have the funds to regulate the UAV pilots.
If a UAV pilot causes injury or significant property damage the FAA will definitely get involved if they are notified. If the FAA for any reason contacts a suspected UAV pilot you need to know your rights and just how to respond. You can actually shut down their investigative efforts simply by shutting your own mouth.
This is still America and there is still a Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and all you have to do is use it! When ANY government official asks you questions about a UAV you may or may not be involved with you simply tell that agent or cop, “I want a lawyer”. Do not answer questions. Do not make excuses and do not tell lies. SAY NOTHING AT ALL!
Local police may be involved initially and the same holds true for them. “I want a lawyer”, should never be too difficult to remember. Should they try to invite you into an interview or interrogation room simply refuse restating you’re not talking to anyone without a lawyer present. The FAA would love to have a police video recording of you telling them who hired you and that you were the actual paid UAV pilot.
The FAA has to prove that you were using that UAV for a commercial purpose. They have to positively know who hired you. They have to also prove that you were paid or expected payment by way of an offer or actual payment. Of course you could help the FAA by admitting whom you contracted with and for how much. That will seal your fate and get you ready to write the FAA a big check.
If your client is a news organization they can be counted upon to instantly shut down any inquiry involving a news source. If you have provided them with aerial video, that automatically makes you their news source. They will fight any and all subpoenas and the various shield laws probably will protect you from exposure.
If the FAA somehow becomes aware you made a video for a paying client they will begin by asking that client who made it and how much was paid. If it’s not a news organization they will rat you out in a second. But that information is really not enough to withstand a court hearing. That’s mostly hearsay evidence that we ban in our courtrooms.
They absolutely will need a witness/s that will testify that they saw you, contract with the client and actually pilot the UAV.
As for the FAA chasing the little guys shooting video for news organizations, real estate outfits, entertainment projects or weddings. Each investigation by the FAA will cost them more to conduct each investigation than any fine they’d ever hope to collect. It’s just not practical unless of course you help the FAA make the case against you by blabbing to them.
If you’re trying to pay your rent or grocery bill with your camera armed UAV, go ahead and do it. Always fly safely. Practicing first in wide-open and uninhabited spaces is an absolute must before you can learn to make a watchable video anyway. You should have a minimum of 25 or 30 failure free flights behind you before you consider yourself ready to take on paying video assignments.
The current terrific cameras like the $400.00 GoPro must stay somewhat close to the ground for the best-detailed images. The FAA’s current 400 Foot limit is more than enough altitude for you to work with. Helicopter news crews operate above 400 feet but they are using special lenses on their cameras that cost well into tens of thousands of dollars.
As for the future the FAA has put UAV regulation on the fast track and will have some rules out soon. I fully expect they will be far more reasonable than the current commercial use ban.
State and local government lawmakers will quickly get involved now too. UAV operators will quickly need to hire professional lobbyists to appear before lawmakers to oppose bans and other severe restrictions. We always seem to elect really ignorant people to or legislatures and city councils. They run government by knee jerk.