INDIANAPOLIS - A hidden camera investigation from our investigators found a growing threat from illegal business flights of drones nationwide, prompting concerns from Indianapolis pilots and calls for action in Congress.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved a single drone flight for business purposes anywhere in the country, the Call 6 Investigators found many businesses and entrepreneurs flying drones for aerial photography, including several that advertise drone flights in Indiana.
The investigators at our sister station WRTV in Indianapolis also pushed for the release of new documents from the FAA that show a rising number of safety complaints from pilots, as well as several drone companies that continue to fly after being warned by the FAA that their flights are illegal.
"I hope that the FAA gets involved in this and we get this stopped. This is a dangerous situation," Indianapolis pilot Roger Tomey said in response to the news report.
Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are only legal for hobbyists to fly under 400 feet of altitude and away from airports and populated areas, according to standing FAA rules . The agency has ruled that any time money changes hands or profits are generated from flying a drone, those hobbyist rules no longer allow such flights.
The Call 6 Investigators requested enforcement documents, never before released by FAA, showing a rising number of complaints about drones surprising manned aircraft pilots in the air. The documents also show the FAA frequently issuing cease and desist letters or other warnings to drone services found to be advertising flights for hire, usually to produce aerial photography.
Among the highlights of those enforcement documents reviewed by Call 6 Investigators:
- 23 investigations were launched by FAA over the past two- years in response to complaints or inspectors finding drone flights depicted online
- 10 drone operators received warning letters or advisories that their flights were illegal
- 5 unauthorized drones were spotted by pilots and reported to FAA
- Several drone operators garnered new complaints after having been previously warned by the FAA that their flights were illegal
In some cases, the FAA closed its investigations into illegal drone flights when the suspected drone operators would simply claim that photos posted online were actually taken from licensed and manned planes or helicopters.
"It concerns me greatly. This is an accident waiting to happen," said Tomey. "You’'re going to end up causing a very serious situation that could cost somebody their life," he said, calling the Call 6 Investigators reporting "highly upsetting."
FAA enforcement records provided to the Call 6 Investigators also included:
- March 2011 -- The only fine ever issued: A proposed $10,000 fine against a drone operator for an aerial picture-taking flight at University of Virginia (Charlottesville), where FAA inspectors wrote that dangerous maneuvers were performed near bystanders.
- March 2012 -- FAA inspectors wrote that drones were used in filming of "On Dangerous Ground" in Alaska. Case closed when drone operator couldn't be established.
- October 2012 -- FAA asked for Orlando police assistance in locating a drone near an airport. Pictures were posted online, but case was closed when operator couldn't be established.
- Several investigations launched in New York City after photos were posted online or drones were reported by bystanders.
- August 2012 -- Contractor hired to map out evacuation routes for FEMA admitted to flying up to 10,000 feet without any approval by FAA
- November 2012 -- Operator of drone warned to stop after online video showed flight near Winthrop, Mass.
- September 2012 -- Air traffic controller in Warwick, R.I. complains of drone flying in his airspace
- September 2011 -- Pilot in Houston reported spotting drone flying near him along Interstate 10 near downtown
- May 2012 -- Pilot in Fredericksburg, Va. reported seeing drone pass within 100 feet of his wing
In March of this year, an Alitalia airliner made national news headlines when the pilot reported spotting a drone as he was trying to land at New York's JFK Airport.
An Indianapolis pilot of a small plane reported spotting a drone to airport managers in Greenwood. Those managers told our investigators that the pilot spotted the drone a few hundred feet below him and flying in the opposite direction at a high rate of speed.
Another Indianapolis pilot, Tom Jeffries, who runs a flight school at the same Greenwood airport, said, "It just puts a whole new dimension on the idea of safety, because we're concerned about birds, we're concerned about other airplanes, and now we're throwing in something that is totally uncontrolled.
"They're not going to appear on radar, you're never going to see them until they hit something," Jeffries said.
"When they suck one of those drones into the engine of an airplane, then it'll get everybody's attention. And they'll