The FAA fined the guy who crashed a drone at the White House, people who flew over sporting events, and two pilots who crashed their drones into the ocean in Puerto Rico.
Lots of people have been fined for flying drones when they pose a threat to those on the ground or aircraft in the sky. However, the punishments levied by the US government against people who fly drones appear to be mostly arbitrary: They range between $400 and $5,500 (with one outlier at $1.9 million), the cases are almost entirely concentrated on the East Coast, and the specific wording and regulations the Federal Aviation Administration cites are inconsistent, according to enforcement letters obtained by Motherboard using the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents involve 24 different people or companies and the FAA's FOIA office says they are the entirety of the Federal Aviation Administration's enforcement efforts against drone pilots thus far.
In October, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told Congress that the FAA had issued 20 civil penalties to drone operators. I filed a FOIA request for documents related to those penalties as well as any other penalties enforced by the agency during the time the request was being processed.
The documents the FAA sent me show that the fine for flying a drone recklessly vary wildly: Some hobbyists have settled with the FAA for as little as $400, while others, such as the man who crashed his drone on the White House lawn, have paid as much as $5,500.
More commonly, the FAA fines people between $1,100 and $2,200 and, if it receives pushback, offers to settle for much less. Commercial operators have been fined as much as $1.9 million. All of these documents are embedded at the bottom of this post.
"There's drones being used all over the country, so why such a focus on New York, Washington, and Boston?"
"They propose a scare-you-to-death fine, you talk to them, and then they give you a slap-on-the-wrist fine and go on their way," Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based drone attorney told me.
Be careful if you fly on the East Coast
The FAA has issued fines to people who have flown drones into public buildings, over sports stadiums, and in Washington DC's restricted flight area. Those fines make at least some amount of sense—more puzzlingly, the FAA has fined people for flights that have ended in no incident whatsoever, and once fined two people who crashed their drones into each other over the ocean in Puerto Rico.
Almost all of the fines have come from the FAA's eastern region office, which appears to have taken a hardline stance against drones. This means that almost all of the FAA's drone fines have come in east coast cities, with a couple of isolated fines in Texas, Alabama, and Puerto Rico.
"The penalties are disturbingly all over the place. The allegations, even though they're coordinated through headquarters, are all over the place," Loretta Alkalay, who was head of the FAA's Eastern Regional legal office for 20 years and is now a drone law professor, told me. "Some inspectors call it an aircraft, some places it's an unmanned system."
"There's drones being used all over the country, so why such a focus on New York, Washington, and Boston?" she said. "There are other big cities in the US."
The FAA has one go-to violation it cites when fining drone pilots, but the agency is willing to pull out additional regulations or violations if it wants to throw the book at a person or company.
The standard violations the FAA cites are ones that prohibit people from operating an aircraft "in a careless or reckless manner," or in certain types of airspace. But in other instances it has fined people for flying a drone without "an operable coded radar beacon transponder," and "automatic altitude reporting equipment." These are instruments almost no drones have, and the regulations being used are for manned aircraft.
Sachs says that much of the evidence the FAA uses in enforcement investigations comes from publicly available YouTube videos, commercial operators' websites, and media and police reports. This is backed up by previous FAA documents Motherboard has obtained.
Are there more fines?
The FAA would not comment on specific cases. Patricia McNall, an FAA attorney who handled my FOIA request, wrote in a cover letter that these were all the enforcement actions that the FAA had issued and did not mention there being any other cases. An FAA spokesperson was unable to say for sure if there were any other cases not included in the FOIA. I was referred to an FAA document about enforcement actions notes that the agency only advises issuing penalties if an inspector decides there is a "medium or high actual or potential risk to safety," though it does not define what those thresholds might be.
Getting a response to my FOIA took seven months because of a backlog of requests and general disorganization at the FAA. Shari Harvey, who is taking over most of the drone FOIAs at the FAA, told me a few weeks before I got a response that the agency's database for drone infractions is fragmented to the point where seemingly simple searches require the cooperation of many different offices. Safety inspectors, who issue the fines, report to the Flight Standards District Offices, which are supposed to eventually report to FAA headquarters.
Both men were fined because of "damage to the hotel property," even though the drones crashed into the ocean
"Nothing is centralized," Harvey told me. The official I worked with wrote in a response to my request that these were all of the fines the agency has issued, but spokespeople for the FAA headquarters weren't able to confirm that was the case. It's entirely possible, then, that even the FAA has no idea how many fines it has issued. These documents are, however, the most complete list of fines ever released. If you know of any others, please contact me.
If you're a drone law nerd, the documents make for interesting reading. If you're not, the broad takeaways here are that only certain FAA offices care or have the bandwidth to worry about punishing drone pilots.
The documents also suggest that if you're fined by the FAA, you should definitely appeal or ask for a settlement, because there's a good chance you can end up with a lower fine. It's also noteworthy that you could be fined even if you don't crash your drone into anything. And one last thing: Don't fly your drone near a sporting event, and definitely stay out of Washington DC, where fines are uniformly the highest.
Here's what happened in every case, in order from lowest fine to highest fine: