Shutterbug drone biz fined $1.9m for buzzing New York City, Chicago

Watchdog not happy with cam-bots entering restricted airspace, flying without permits

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has slapped a record fine on a photography company accused of conducting more than five dozen unauthorized drone flights.

The FAA said it wants to dock SkyPan International $1.9m for flying drones over the skies of New York City and Chicago without permission. The fine will be the largest the FAA has ever levied for drone violations.

Technically speaking, this is a proposed fine – SkyPan could wriggle out of the punishment, or prove it broke no laws. It has a month to respond to the FAA.

According to the regulator, SkyPan operated the drone flights over restricted airspace, including 43 flights into New York City's restricted "class B" airspace zone [PDF] of the Hudson River.

A commercial photography company, SkyPan offers to shoot panoramic views of landscapes from high altitudes for clients such as high-rise building developers. The company has also been accused of flying craft without certification or clearance and flying without a proper two-way radio or altitude-reporting equipment.

"Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous," FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in announcing the record fine.

"We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations."

As easy-to-fly consumer quadcopter drones become more common and more affordable, dealing with amateur drone pilots has become an increasingly bothersome issue for the FAA.

While the agency has long worked with model airplane pilots on safety rules, those enthusiasts tended to be well-versed in FAA regulations, including restrictions on flight areas and altitude limits.

Drone pilots, meanwhile, tend to be less experienced in flying and often do not know when and where they can legally operate. This has led to some near misses with commercial aircraft. ®

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