On October 6, 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an enforcement letter to SkyPan International, Inc. assessing a $1.9 million dollar civil penalty for flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) without permission. The FAA has fined drone operators for unlawful flights in the past, but this is by far the largest civil penalty to date. This should be a reminder to unauthorized drone pilots that flying commercial UAVs is still illegal and carries great risk in the United States.

The allegations against SkyPan state that the company conducted 65 unauthorized flights in congested airspace in New York City and Chicago over a two-year period.  Of these, 43 flights took place in Class B airspace (near an airport) without obtaining air traffic control (ATC) clearance. To the FAA, these flights were clearly “illegal” and high risk.  

According to the FAA, SkyPan lacked an airworthiness certificate, Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, for its flights.  The FAA also called SkyPan’s flights “careless” and “reckless,” potentially endangering lives.

The FAA’s letter to SkyPan should be a reminder to persons flying drones that just because “everybody is doing it” does not make flying UAVs legal. We are still waiting on the FAA’s final rule authorizing small UAV flights in the National Airspace System.  Until then, commercial flights remain illegal unless the operator has obtained permission from the FAA.

SkyPan has an opportunity to challenge the FAA's enforcement letter. I have no personal knowledge as to whether SkyPan was as careless or reckless as the FAA's press release suggests.