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Contradictions Going on with Drone Regulation and Enforcement are Amazing!

Published: 31/01/2019
By: larry

In the past few weeks, I was struck by the contradictions illustrated by news stories about drone regulation. These were the two stories:

  1. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is proposing new rules that would allow drones to be flown at night and over people without waivers, as long as certain conditions are met. The U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary announced the proposed rules on Jan. 14, 2019.
  2. Two drones were sighted over Teterboro Airport (TEB), a general aviation relief airport owned and managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is a very busy part of the world, some 20 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and LaGuardia (LGA), and 28 miles from JFK.

Drones are fantastically useful new technology; particularly in real estate photography. But unless I'm missing something, there seems to be little or no means of enforcing drone regulations. In item 2 above, two drones were flying at 3500' in the landing pattern of Teterboro Airport. Rules specify drones should not be within 5 miles of an airport and stay lower than 400'. If they can't stop this foolishness at the world's busiest airports, then there's no enforcement anywhere else! It only takes a few people out of the 116,000 registered US drone operators ignoring the rules to cause a big problem.

I think we should stop relaxing drone regulations until existing regulations can be enforced. What am I missing?

26 comments on “Contradictions Going on with Drone Regulation and Enforcement are Amazing!”

  1. I do agree, the regulations are a mess. Where I live, (Orange County California) the county has encouraged cities to enact their own laws about drone use. That would make a mishmash of regulations that would be difficult to follow. Add to that, almost all of the county is controlled airspace, it is almost impossible to do drones legally here.

  2. The government went over the top with regulations controlling the use of the small drones used in real estate. It has caused many to fly them illegally which is unfair to those who want to follow the rules. Until they separate by size / weight it will continue to be a problem.

  3. Teterboro- Let's think a bit more logically. It was night, in February (bitter cold) and the reported sighting was 3500 ft. And two airline pilots on separate flights were able to see and identify a dinner-plate size object while flying at 200 knots?


    The fact is that there has not been a single verified drone "sighting" near a major airport in the U.S. Not one.

    Pilot: "What was that"?
    Co-pilot: "I dunno' report a bird? UFO"?
    Pilot: "Nah, let's call it a drone- everyone will believe that".

  4. Not too long ago I was in San Clemente, California, and two large military helicopters flew just above the cliffline to the north. I have lived there years and this was the first time I had seen this, but those cliffs are about 100 feet. You may say they never do this or something, but I saw it with my own eyes.

    My point being at some point there is going to be an incident. Where those helicopters were was a completely legal drone flight area near the san clemente pier.

  5. "Pilot: “What was that”?"
    An hour later on the 6 O'clock news ... "Breaking News" An Airbus A380 aircraft has gone done with over 800 souls... no survivors... outside Los Angeles airport....

    Months later, the accident review board find that the accident was caused by a toy drone flown by some jerk off....

    Maybe Stephen will change his attitude then

    No one with their eyes open can dispute that drones have become a big problem

  6. @Jerry, the argument that a small drone such as a DJI Phantom doesn't have a chance of crashing a passenger jet is almost true. It does, but the chance is very tiny. What is more likely is that the drone causes damage and grounds the aircraft costing thousands of dollars and a whole lot of cancelled tickets. If one smacks into a windshield, it could fluster the pilots a bit (sarcasm). Most people don't remember that it was only a chuck of foam that caused the Space Shuttle Columbia to break up during reentry from damage that occurred during launch. Foam doesn't weigh anything (until it's going a few hundred miles an hour in relation to something like a Shuttle wing leading edge). What is more likely to hear on the news is that a drone was thought to have been sucked into a jet engine and thousands of passengers missed their flights while a maintenance crew was flown in from somewhere to do a complete inspection. (Assuming the plane would have been making many more cycles that day). A more complex scenario that could lead to lots of deaths is if the drone takes out a much smaller GA aircraft up to a business jet that then crashes into a larger passenger jet on the ground or into a nearby neighborhood.

    @Stephen, There have been scores of drones sightings near airports. There are lots of sightings during wildfires causing firefighting aircraft to be grounded. You don't see photos because drones are so small and cell phones have no way to get a photo that gets more than a couple of pixels on one. There is lots of drone footage on Youtube that was shot dangerously close to major airports. Remember that company that was fined for flying in the flight paths in and out of Chicago O'Hare?

    Flying over people is also a huge problem. Get on YouTube and type in "drone fail" and you'll likely come across a crash that was right on the heels of a downhill skier during a race. It was a really big drone being used by a news service and splashed into thousands of pieces on impact. Had it come down where the spectators were lined up on the side of the course, there would have been serious injuries at least and some deaths might have occurred. The problem is these things are slapped together in China as cheaply as possible by assemblers that have had a whole hour of training, don't have any redundency and since the pilot isn't onboard, there isn't as much attention paid to preflight checks and rigorous maintenance. If something goes wrong, they fall out of the sky with no warning.

  7. I've been listening to the Drone U podcast (at least the episodes that are of interest to me) and according to these guys, the alleged drone sightings near Newark were pretty unlikely. But I wasn't sitting in the pilots seat so who am I to say anything. I should also note that the FAA drone rules are a little more nuanced than not flying within 5 miles of an airport and below 400'. But most definitely flying at 3500' is unacceptable under any circumstances.

  8. Drone enforcement works just like any other kind of enforcement - they don't come looking for you, it's complaint driven. Someone observes regulations being broken or has safety concerns, they file a complaint, and the FAA has to address the complaint. No different then the police. A cop might observe you running a light, and him writing a ticket is his way of filing a compliant. Even fish the size of Manafort or Stone are where they are because somebody filed a complaint which had to be addressed. That's how we roll here.

  9. Yes, as Stephen points out, it can't be left up to pilots to identify a drone! There MUST be technology to identify (by registered owner name) and keep drones where they belong. Drones can be weapons. The mistake we've made as a society is to put over a million drones in operation with almost no reasonable technology to control them. It's just a matter of time before this bites us in the ass.

    There are apparently some technologies being developed ( but they are crude and just being developed. An air traffic controller has to be able to identify an illegal drone by the registered owner and have the option of disabling it.

  10. The real problem is that only a small percentage of people who use drones commercially, are licensed. It is un real how many photographers, videographers, contractors, builders, re agents, brokers and even title agencies offer drones for FREE who aren't licensed and really care less BC no one is enforcing them.

    Of course most of there peoples work is very poor quality, it still hurts the professional side. I only had one job since part 107 was released that cared about certification and they told me the other potential pilots lied about being certified and could not provide a license when asked.

    If regulations were enforced and pilots were scared of consequences, we wouldn't have this problem.

    Lastly, no one follows up on complaints unless the pilot has a large YouTube following.

  11. One obvious place to start would be requiring all Drones sold anywhere to be equipped with a transponder that continuously broadcast registration info, GPS coordinates, and altitude.

  12. The second obvious place to start would be to eliminate the "hobbyist" exclusion. And, require training/licensing and insurance...just like we do for cars, airplanes, hot air balloons, motorboats, selling real estate, etc. etc.

  13. Agreed with Aaron. I've been flying drones commercially (licensed) for years and the competition without proper licensing and insurance has exploded in the past 2 years or so. No one regulates it at all, the FAA is seemingly overwhelmed or doesn't care unless it's a major threat type situation.

    I had a competitor literally target my exact clients, offering services for 1/4 of the price with no business license, no FAA certification, and no insurance. A few of my cheap clients went with him, most declined his offers.

    After he started posting work (even in restricted flight areas!) on social media, I reported the flights to the FAA on three occasions and they did nothing. He's still working illegally and charging minimal fees for it. I do have faith that in the long run the licenses and such will pay off, but for now it's still a wild west of an industry.

    For what it's worth, you can search the FAA database online to see who is actually licensed and who is not. It's applicable for most levels of traditional pilot licenses as well.

  14. You know what is really surprising? The fact that people are surprised by the fact that there is no enforcement.

    It shows that people don’t really understand the REAL reason for drone regulations.

    Do you REALLY believe that “safety” is the reason regulations were put in?


    The regulations were never really about safety. As they stand they cannot significantly improve safety at all. Key word being “significantly”.

    The biggest threat to aircraft at low altitude is birds. That threat is never going away. Drones are just an addition to this already existing threat.

    But how MUCH more?

    I believe that the answer is “hardly any”.

    If there are 100 “points of danger” from birds then the addition of drones likely boosts that up 2 or 3 points total to 103 points of danger.

    That is essentially nothing. ESP since a good breeding year could bump the bird risk up to 115 for that year.

    We have never yet had someone die from a drone. Ever. There have been millions and millions of flights. And here is the REAL kicker...

    The “regulations” for the most part only apply to people earning paychecks with drones. For every regulated “paycheck” flight there are 100 hobbyists flights taking off.

    Who do you think turns off the internal regulations on the drones and flies those babies as high as they can? Part 107 fliers or hobbyist kids?

    Kids of course. In fact, I bet that there are hundreds and hundreds of flights WELL above 400 feet happening every day.

    Yet not one death.

    That proves that the REAL risk....the SIGNIFICANT risk is very low. If it was NOT low there would be someone dead already. After all, a handful of general aviation pilots die every year. So people do die. But not yet from drones.

    Now let’s circle back...

    Do you think that the FAA happens to one that there is no SIGNIFICANT risk from drone flights?

    Yes they do.

    Did they also know that their regulations would cover only 1% of all flights out there?

    Yes they did.

    Did they know that they do NOT have the budget to enforce their own regulations the way local police offices enforce speeding tickets?

    Yes they do.

    So if they know that they can’t enforce their own regulations and if they know that there is not significant risk in the first place and if they know that the regulations they DID put in place can’t really increase safety because they apply to only 1 in 100 take-offs.

    Why did they make the regulations in the first place.

    Oh...that’s easy. Politics.

    The politics of busy-bodies.

    Those same bossy neighbors who bother you while you fly your drone snapping aerials of a house....those people bother their congressman. They want “the government” to get their but in gear and “do something”.

    Enough of these squeaky wheel start squeezing and enough ridiculous public fear of drones and an over concern about safety and a complete lack of American’s ability to properly assess risk anymore means that congress people start beating bushes at the FAA.

    And while the FAA knows that the regulations is worthless...they have to make congress happy. They need to show that they are “doing something.”

    So they put token regulation into effect that they can point to whenever a busy-body harasses Senator falls up saying, “Hey FAA chief. What are you doing about these drones?”

    The FAA cheif points to the worthless regulation and says: “We’re doing this.” That is all the Senator needs to go back to their constituents with so they say “Okay.” And hang up. And the FAA cheif can get back to his real work.

    Bottom Line #1: The drone regulation in this country is feel good regulation. It was never supposed to solve a problem. If you think if IS supposed to solve a problem, you will be confused and frustreated.

    Bottom Line #2: People Are Going To Die - a thousand years is a long time. Sometime between now and the year 3,019 some drone is going to collide with a plane and some people are going to die. Period. Not if. But when. Birds kill pilots. Drones will eventually too. We are not going to ban drones so we better all get ready for the event when it happens. People die in cars every day. Nobody freaks out. Nobody gives it the unusual level of concer that we see in regards to drones which are obviously a much LESSER risk to life and limb than cars. Nobody is trying to ban cars because people de in them. Because everyone is cool with the risk. Everyone better get cool with the risk about drones...because they are not going anywhere.

    Bottom Line #3: The 107 Regulatikns Were NOT Designed to Be Government Support of Your Business - I see that all the time too. People like “How come nobody is chasing down these unlicensed people?”

    Why? Because they don’t care. The regulations were only supposed to APPEAR to be about safety. Not really BE about safety. They certainly were never about keeping your competition out of your back yard via some drone police. They don’t have the money to run a drone police force and they don’t want to either. So if you harbor that kind of thinking, get that nonsense out of your head.

  15. @Brian,

    As a business person, you have to evaluate what services are worth offering and the level of investment it will take to deliver those services. Part of the equation is the barrier to entry for your competition. If there is no barrier to entry for anybody to get into offering drone photo/video services, what's the benefit of spending over $1,000 for a drone and more money every year for insurance when a kid in high school with no overhead can halve your price and take home more money than working at a fast food joint? Regardless of whether you think the regulations are worthless or not, the liability on the agent for hiring an unlicensed operator is $11,000. The risk to them is tiny, but the downside is pretty steep.

    Insurance companies like that there is a license. You have had to demonstrate that you have the basic knowledge to operate safely. It also means that if you don't, you lose your license and your insurance. For residential real estate an agent may not care if you are licensed and insured, but if you are making images for commercial property and businesses, it becomes more likely that they will want an "additionally insured" certificate for liability and will want to see your remote pilot license and insurance for your drone.

    You get a veneer of respect in the case of a complaint from somebody when the police are called. You can let them know you are flying the drone to capture images of a property for marketing not the ubiquitous teenage girls sunning themselves in the neighboring backyard and "Here's my Remote Pilot's license from the FAA". You become a working professional tradesman and not just a ragged perv spying on people.

    The chances of getting fined or having your license revoked is minuscule. It's probably only going to happen if something else goes wrong. The FAA isn't the exclusive agency that can cite an operator as far as I know. It would be nice to hear from an attorney, but it's typical that any law enforcement officer can enforce any law on the books. If you were flying over a crowd at an event and a sheriff's deputy was there, they could cite you. If you were to fly in the TFR zone around the Superbowl, any LEO could cite/arrest you and possibly impound your drone as well. The downside of misbehaving for a licensed commercial operator is that they can lose their license and their insurance becomes invalid and that will limit the work that they can get. I believe that there is a bigger fine for operating commercially on a suspended or revoked license.

    There is no doubt that a drone can damage an aircraft. The argument that birds damage aircraft is a red herring since nobody is going to suggest killing all of the birds. They are a hazard that has to be lived with. The chances of the big engine on a Boeing 757 being damaged by a Phantom 4 is tiny. The chances that a prop will be damaged on a Cessna 172 starts closing in on 100%. A Mig-15 or a Fouga Magister fighter, somewhere in the middle. (I have a local friend that owns those aircraft and flies them from the city airport) A Phantom isn't that big and is lots of plastic, but there are plenty of drones under 25kg that are big bruisers. Strap a Canon 5D with a 70-200mm lens to the underbelly and suck the whole thing through the engine on a Gulfstream and place your bets. (there's a Gulfstream repair/scrapper company at the local airport too).

    Drones are a great way to get images that just a few years ago could only be made after paying a whole bunch of money to go up in a small plane or helicopter. I've photographed from lots of aircraft, but I was never the one that had to pay for it. No law is going to keep drunken yahoos from doing stupid things with them in the same way that no gun law is going to stop gang members from knocking each other off. What they will do is keep commercial operators from doing stupid things that can lose them their license and invalidate their insurance. Other than not being able to fly in certain neighborhoods in my service area due to a couple of airports and two military bases, nothing in the regulations affects me so why should I care? What I don't want to see is every state, county and city drafting their own inane ordinances that require me to obtain a separate permit from each of them, notify everybody within 1/2 mile 2 weeks in advance and get releases from every property owner within 1,000' of where I plan to fly and take photos. That would effectively make aerial images of homes for sale too hard to do legally and since the ordinances are local, the local cops will know all about them and be happy to write the ticket so they make their quota that month. I shoot in two states, several counties and many cities. Having to track and comply with differing ordinances in all of them and trying to figure out which ones apply when there are several conflicting ones will cost too much in alcohol. I'm much happier with the FAA writing the book and that being The Word. Drones will be regulated, period. Who do you want doing it?

  16. The timing of this post couldn't be better for me, as I am a novice drone owner midway through training for my Remote Pilot Certificate. Being at this time and place, I have a unique perspective of still being idealistic in the my intentions to provide quality, affordable aerials for my clients, while also being nearly naive to the complexity of regulated airspace. With each course in my training I seem to swing wildly between thinking this is completely unreasonable and impossible, to respecting how common sense these regulations are when applied to such an inherently complex and dangerous environment.

    The reason I'm adding drone to my business is somewhat nuanced. Amongst my regular clients there is virtually no demand for drone photos. But it's the prospective clients that constantly ask if I have one. And every time I say "no", it seems they end up going with someone else. Did I lose the job just because of the drone? Maybe. Does the person they went with have a license? Probably not. Did I lose not only this shoot, but all future shoots with a new client. Definitely.

    So for the cost of a new lens, me and my license will now be able to answer "yes!" Hopefully I get the job and all goes well. But if the property happens to be close to the airport that's smack-dab in the middle of my market, I'll give them a quick rundown of what a Class D airspace means and why it's best for both of us to follow the rules on this one. And then I'll do my damn best with my 6 foot tripod to give them the finest shots possible.

  17. @ Brian Kurtz
    So I worked my way through your post, and I think you've got some pretty bad tunnel vision. "Deaths" are not the issue. I agree that death is not a likely outcome of most drone accidents, and not the one we should be constructing policy around. But there are a zillion negative outcomes that fall short of death, but which are still going to be pretty awful. Like the bride who got her face sliced open after her videographer flew into her head. Or the people in downtown San Francisco who were standing less than 10' away when a drone smacked into a building and plummeted 35 stories to the sidewalk (rotors still spinning). Google "Drone accident" and you'll find plenty of people who will tell you that an accident doesn't have to be fatal to cause misery. And those are just accidents. If you can't think up a few creative ways that drones could be intentionally mis-used, you're just not trying very hard. And I think that whatever you do think up, someone is actually doing something far worse.

    Birds are a real and serious aviation hazard...and also hard to do anything about (although there is a lot of mitigation happening near airports). But just because we can't eliminate one source of danger doesn't mean we should just throw our hands up in the air and ignore ALL sources of danger. We do have the ability to regulate drone why on earth wouldn't we? The reason why air travel is so incredibly safe is that the FAA takes EVERYTHING really, really seriously. So when drone regulations come up, instead of complaining that they're being draconian, or paranoid, or part of some vast governmental conspiracy, or even just specious, maybe take into consideration that this is perhaps the most successful regulatory regimen in the world.

  18. I'd guess most of the risk is from unlicensed operators.

    I have to be licensed because I make my living with a drone. I also fly very carefully because I'll be flying it the next day too (or I won't get the job). The folks that fly just for fun get bored quickly, start experimenting and inevitably have an accident soon afterwards - I've seen that scenario over and over.

    The logic of requiring a license for someone that NEEDS their drone -vs- no license for someone that's using the same drone as a toy is dumbfounding.

  19. Personally, I would just like to see a change to the regulations that permits Part 107 commercial operations at or below 150' AGL and more than one mile from all extended runway centerlines to occur in Class D airspace without prior coordination with air traffic control.

    That would cover the majority of my operations, where Class D airspace from 3 airfields completely blankets the local area. The local ATC has always been very accommodating with my requests, but I think for a busy ATC controller it might be more of a burden than its worth. The "see and avoid" requirement placed on all aircraft/UAS operators should alleviate any potential conflict with offsite operations/landings by helicopters. FWIW, I was a helo pilot in the USAF, though I'm no expert on the vast array of considerations conducted by the FAA during rulemaking.

  20. From the dubious support Brian Kurtz has often provided for his opinions here in the past, I do not give much credence to his opinions in this case. And poor writing does not help his case much either.

    The fact that limited resources may constrain the FAA's ability to enforce drone regulations, or that no deaths have so far resulted from drone accidents, are hardly good arguments for no regulations, which seems to be what Brian is suggesting should be the case.

  21. There are a WHOLE LOT of assumptions going on here about the dangers drones pose; personally I'm not comfortable saying that the dangers are minimal. I'm perfectly happy if the "busy body" politicians err on the side of safety. And I hope that long term studies are going on to assess the real dangers.

    I think part of the problem is the ubiquity of drones. Hobbyist rules have existed for a long time to allow model airplane flyers a cutout to operate without having to get a pilot's license. And that has been the space drones have occupied. But drones have certain advantages: they are cheaper now, they have cameras which allow them to be flown out of eyeball view (you aren't going to let a $1000 model airplane fly off somewhere that you can't see it), and they are easier to fly (model airplanes need a runway and I've heard that model helicopters are notoriously hard to control as are planes to land). This all makes drones MUCH more attractive, which means more knuckleheads taking more chances.

    Until the field advances, we'll have to rely on a few things like drone manufacturers geofencing their drones so they won't fly over 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport and the public at large holding drone pilots accountable by asking pilots for the licenses. Those of us who fly, need to advertise that we are certified, that we are insured and that we follow the rules.

    There will be those who will skirt the system by hacking their drones or building their own, by ignoring the norms, etc. But there is nothing we can do about that. Eventually the "wild west" of the skies will settle down once better systems are in place. It will just take some patience because this field is so new and because the government is always outpaced by technology.

  22. Hard to believe 2 years has already passed and I'm just starting prep for my re-cert.

    Does the regulation drive at least 'some' improvement in safety? I believe so. You learn a lot by going through the courses, taking it seriously, and passing the exam. You'll learn how to work in/around airports, weather, and plenty about regulations. While the training does nothing for flight proficiency, it definitely makes you a better pilot.

    Curious folks I talk with about the process are put-off, deterred by the perceived effort. It does take some effort but, as someone using it professionally, it is worthwhile.

    In my area, a number of my competitors state on their websites they will not fly within 5 miles of an airport. I just smile. In my metro area, with 4 major airports in the area, if you're not willing to fly in controlled airspace, I estimate you're leaving 40% of the metro area for your competitors (me).

    I have no problem picking up the phone to the local tower and talking with ATC. With a completed checklist of pertinent details in hand, I call. I make my request, they're friendly (pause while directing other aircraft) and grant my request. A few ask I call back to let them know when I'm done:). I've found I'm more aware of some regulations than they are. With LAANC being rolled out, it'll be even less onerous.

    As for geofencing, there are many areas DJI already has programmed into their newer drones. If you're in one of those areas, the drone won't even launch. It'll just sit there. For instance, border-area no-fly zones, within half-mile of a towered airport...and so on.

    Personally, I'm looking forward to the automation for UAS that is being rolled out. I don't like distracting ATC from dealing with manned a/c, to deal with my drone. It's all part of their job, I still don't like it.

  23. Some of the respondents here seem to be thinking of all drones as similar to their little Phantoms. It's worth remembering that the FAA category we work in covers drones up to 50 pounds. Something that big moving at speed (or falling) can do very significant damage.

    My humble suggestion would be to have looser regs for drones under, say, five pounds, and very tight restriction on the big boys.

  24. @John McMillin, I believe that the FAA is trying to come up with different classifications for drones based on weight/size but didn't want to have too many categories to start with. Anything under .55.lbs is tiny and isn't going to have much flight time. Bigger craft over 55lbs get into the realm of specialized work such as crop dusting and longer duration flying and while needing more skills to operate, there won't be as many of them. In the coming years as drones for aerial photography/video get smaller and lighter, the current weight range might get split. The question is whether that's helpful for pilots and FAA administration. They may want to keep the test the same and pilots may want to have the broader weight range so they can do more work without having to hold multiple ratings or need to re-test for a higher rating frequently. One thing that could change is the waiver requirements. For instance, it might get easier to get waivers to fly closer to an airport with a smaller drone which is great for those of us doing RE/property imagery.

    @Scott Shaeffler, Most of the time it wouldn't be a problem to be on the centerline of an airport runway a mile or two away, but it's those cases where a drone loses its mind and tries to return home to China instead of its take off point. There is also the chance that an aircraft taking off may have a power problem and doesn't climb out normally. I'm thinking mostly of GA aircraft. My friend also likes to make low passes down the local airport runway with his vintage fighter jets. He pulls up and around to get back in the pattern, but he may be a bit lower than normal.

  25. @Larry, "One obvious place to start would be requiring all Drones sold anywhere to be equipped with a transponder that continuously broadcast registration info, GPS coordinates, and altitude."

    There is ADS-B for aircraft to aircraft position notification. I haven't seen one available small and light enough to put in a drone. The ones for aircraft are small for a Cessna, but way too large for a drone. I'll have to look at the specs again, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't broadcast registration info. I used one for a VTVL rocket and was dismayed that the data stream didn't include aircraft type. Since we were going mostly straight up and down, our flights were 90° to normal air traffic. It also makes sense to know the the craft is a small plane, a commercial jet or a fast moving fighter. Another problem is they are highly engineered products and therefore, expensive. Anything that goes on a manned aircraft has to be certified to meet standards by an independent lab and that process is very expensive. There is an experimental aircraft designation, but those aren't allowed to be used in commerce. I wouldn't be surprised to see ADS-B become a requirement for larger UAS's that can accommodate them. When miniaturized versions are good enough, they might either be required all of the time or in order to get certain waivers.

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