Drone flight over Harlem disaster shows messy state of FAA rules

Quadcopter drone missing a propeller

After a gas explosion destroyed two buildings in New York on Wednesday morning, a local man launched a DJI Phantom II to film the action. The 3-pound, 4-blade drone captured 30 minutes of footage; here’s a screenshot from the film which shows the city’s bravest at work:

Harlem drone in action

The drone’s owner, 45-year-old Brian Wilson, told the New York Daily News that he normally uses the Phantom II to film real estate or sports events, and that this was the first time he had filmed breaking news. He claims to have launched the drone after receiving permission from the NYPD, and then landed it after the battery depleted; he added the police told him not to fly it anymore.

Meanwhile, an ABC News chopper flying overhead captured shots of Wilson’s drone flying low above the tragedy (I’ve added the arrow):

Harlem Drone flying

Wilson’s decision to launch the drone is an excellent example of both the drawbacks and the benefits of this new technology: on one hand, drones are an excellent source of news reporting (and possible clues) about events like the explosion but, on the other hand, it could represent a new danger or distraction to emergency responders and the public.

As my colleague Signe Brewster predicted after she flew a Phantom II around San Francisco in December, “Consumer drones are coming, and they will change everything.” Now, it appears they really are here and we will have to decide what to do about them.

FAA claims control but its power is unclear

Right now, the Federal Aviation Agency has clear authority to regulate the airspace around airports and the lanes where commercial jets fly. In most other areas, however, the airspace below 400 or 700 feet appears to be fair game because the agency has not passed any formal regulations covering this space.

This interpretation of the law got a huge boost last week, when a judge struck down the FAA’s attempt to fine a drone photographer $10,000. The judge rejected the agency’s attempt to invoke its own guidelines, which say that some hobby flying is ok, but that commercial use is not, on the grounds these do not count as law.

Commercial drone pilots and many in the tech press responded to the ruling with jubilation, suggesting it provides a green light for a range of drone-related business applications — from farming to surveying to security.

The FAA, however, is appealing the judge’s decision and claims the appeal means the ruling has no force for now. The agency has also published a flurry of statements to assert its authority over airspace, including a series of “myth-busting” claims. The latest of these, published last week, declares that the FAA does have full regulatory authority over low-level airspace and that is equipped to carry out enforcement actions (reports have suggested otherwise).

The agency’s latest “myth-busting” post also states that estimates of 30,000 drones in the sky by the year 2030 are far too high, and that “we estimate roughly 7,500 commercial sUAS would be viable at the end of five years.”

At the same time, the Department of Transportation has also suggested that it will try to flex its power over drones.

In the meantime, as the government scrambles to get on the top of the issue, drone enthusiasts continue to test limits. A Detroit flower service, for instance, has said it will re-launch drone delivery after the FAA grounded its Valentine Day service.

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