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 have
to do something at that point," he said.
Hidden cameras aimed at Indianapolis drone flight
Our investigators found several companies advertising drone flights anywhere in Indiana. One company quoted the price of $500 per hour or $2,000 per day for snapping photos or shooting video from a drone.
That company representative said he had flown hundreds of flights for TV commercials and real estate ventures, including a TV commercial last month for a Houston car dealership.
The Call 6 Investigators went undercover to hire another drone company for a flight above a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Indianapolis.
Brandon Spencer, owner of Drone Photo Services of Louisville, offered to snap photos of several parcels of real estate along Post Road and East 56th Street for $300, claiming he'd flown hundreds of other flights.
When he did not know he was speaking to a reporter, Spencer said he could fly at any altitude that a customer would want. He said he "wasn't supposed to" fly above 400 feet, but he sometimes flew above 1,000 feet or higher, depending on the job.
Local pilots pointed out that they often fly at that same altitude in small planes and helicopters. Some pilots expressed concerns about mid-air collisions or "drones for hire" crashing into homes, cars, or people on the ground.
Spencer arrived for the arranged meeting and cameras were rolling as he scouted out a small lot from which to launch his drone. He removed the aircraft from the passenger seat of his pickup truck, strapped on a remote control device on a vest, attached a battery and then took to the air.
Passing motorists barely noticed as the drone rose into the air, clearing the tree line and then hovering more than 300 feet in the air.
After he was paid $300 for the aerial photos, the Call 6 Investigators team emerged to question him on camera.
When asked if he researched the laws on flying drones for profit, Spencer answered, "No … I just got into it thinking I could make a little money."
When asked if he was putting people in danger with flights that were not approved by the FAA, he answered, "Not that I know of."
While his company's website displayed pictures of a water treatment plant, construction sites and a pedestrian bridge in Louisville, he claimed no money changed hands for those flights.
"You're actually my first paying customer," he told our investigators.
"I just figured, you know, they're selling it out there, I can buy it, I can get it and, it's a helicopter. People fly helicopters and planes all the time, put a camera on it and try to make a little bit of money. That's what I thought," he said.
"If I'm going to get in any trouble over it, it's not worth it," said Spencer.
He said he had paid $10,000 for his helicopter-like drone, known as an F800 Hexacopter that was made in China.
Several pilots and other drone operators also mentioned another leading competitor for paid drone flights known as Copter Kids LLC of Reno, Nev. Company representatives did not respond to emails requesting comment.
A spokesman with the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems section, Les Door, said that no commercial flights have ever been permitted anywhere in the country, including those involving real estate agents or news organizations.
Several types of drones were on display for sale earlier this month at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. Television and news executives saw a number of aircraft that could be used for aerial photography once the FAA establishes guidelines.
Congress has mandated that the FAA come up with regulations for allowing commercial flights of drones in late 2014, but it remains unclear whether training will be required for all drone operators or whether air traffic controllers will be alerted to all flights.
With so many flights taking to the air in advance of those regulations, the Call 6 Investigators asked FAA headquarters whether enough was being done to protect people from unauthorized drone flights.
The agency responded with a written statement (in its entirety):
"The FAA thoroughly investigates possible violations of the agency's regulations by unmanned aircraft operators. In cases where we have verifiable proof of a violation, we do not hesitate to pursue enforcement action. Lacking such proof, we still make sure the operator understands FAA regulations and policy on unmanned aircraft systems. We expect to publish a proposed rule on small unmanned aircraft later this year that will offer regulations for a wide variety of users in the small UAS community, including commercial operators."
U.S. Representative Andre Carson , D-Indianapolis, member of the House aviation subcommittee, said the WRTV investigators' reporting has him pushing for action at the FAA and among members of his committee.
He wrote in a statement (in its entirety):
"As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation and as a former law enforcement officer, I am
very concerned about the instances where the FAA issued cease and desist orders against commercial operations of drones and they were ignored. Commercial drones, including drones for rent, are not authorized under current law and pose a threat to public safety.
"Even before the new regulations go into effect in 2015, we must ensure the FAA is enforcing current law as vigorously as possible and adequately protecting the safety of air traffic and those of us on the ground. I will be raising these concerns with the committee, as well as the FAA.
"I also encourage all drone operators to do the right thing and stop all flights. Unauthorized drone flights put lives at risk and should not be continued, even when FAA fails to enforce the law."
A trade group that represents industries using robotics or unmanned aircraft, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va., has released a code of conduct for its members who may be testing or designing drones for future use.
"AUVSI condemns the misuse of UAS, and believes that anyone who abuses UAS technology should be held accountable," said the group's Melanie Hinton in an email to our investigators.
She said her group is working with the FAA and others to carve out rules for the safe operation of unmanned aircraft.
"AUVSI expects all users of UAS to abide by FAA guidelines, including receiving an FAA Certificate of Authorization before using the technology," she wrote.
Indiana State University in Terre Haute has actually started its own drone program to train students how to fly unmanned aircraft. The program's leader and another instructor did not respond to requests for comment.
Even local police agencies are not yet approved to fly drones for routine public safety missions. In January 2010, the nation's first-ever test flight of a police drone made headlines worldwide, but the FAA still hasn't drawn up plans for how police drones can be safely integrated into the nation's airspace.
Unlike commercial drones, police agencies can apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA for specific flights, but very few flights have actually been requested or approved, according to the FAA.
While police use of drones have spurred debate over civil liberties or spying on people without a warrant, the FAA's review of how to regulate police flights has focused solely on airspace safety.
The FAA is poised to announce six drone test sites around the country, including one in Indiana, where police or private commercial ventures will be able to test their aircraft prior to a full battery of regulations being issued for all drone flights.
For Jeffries, the Indianapolis flight instructor, it's a scary notion.
"Everybody could have their own drone. They could do all kind of things from taking pictures, who knows, seeding their yard, anything! I mean, it's just organized confusion," he said. "It has some broad-reaching implications if we don't get some kind of control of what's going on."