National Press Club

Drone advocates urge FAA regulations, fly drone in Club lobby

June 19, 2014 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Parker Gyokeres (r) pilots his drone in the National Press Club lobby.

Parker Gyokeres (r) pilots his drone in the National Press Club lobby.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The lack of Federal Aviation Administration regulations is hampering the use of drones in photography, missing person searches, environmental monitoring, law enforcement and other activities, advocates said at a National Press Club Newsmaker event on June 18.

After the press conference, a commercial photographer and drone pilot, Parker Gyokeres, flew a helicopter-like drone approximately two feet in diameter in a cleared area of the Club lobby. The drone rose vertically to a height above the top of the flags and then descended.

Attorney Brendan Schulman described the case he filed on behalf of Raphael Pirker, who flew a small drone that took photographs at the University of Virginia for a prospective medical center. Pirker put the video on You Tube, and the FAA fined him $10,000 for dangerously operating a drone for business purposes, Schulman said.

He filed a motion to dismiss the charge, which was accepted by a judge, but is currently under appeal.

“There is no regulation, and, therefore, it is not appropriate to fine someone for operating...[a] model aircraft” in a situation in which nobody was hurt, Schulman said.

A second case Schulman highlighted involved a non-profit organization called Texas Equusearch, which was founded by Tim Miller after Miller's daughter was kidnapped and found dead months later. Using drones, the organization discovered remains of 11 missing people, including those of a two-year-old boy.

The FAA is “harassing” Equusearch and has said that the use of the drone is illegal and must be stopped, according to Schulman, who has filed a suit.

Domestically and internationally, Schulman said there have been 1400 searches for missing people, 300 of whom were found alive. In one case, two young women in another country, who had been kidnapped for the sex trade, were spotted by the same type of drone Equusearch uses and subsequently rescued.

Ben Gielow, general counsel and government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, delineated the delay in FAA regulations. In 2008, the FAA created a rulemaking committee, which submitted recommendations in 2009 that should have resulted in rules by 2011, according to Gielow.

The 2012 FAA reauthorization bill directed the agency to write regulations integrating drones into U.S. air space by Sept. 30, 2015, a deadline which will not be met, he said.

In a sign of progress, Gielow said, the FAA has established six test sites, three or four of which are operating, and has allowed limited commercial activity in Alaska to monitor oil rigs, track whales and follow ice floes.

But because the FAA is on thin legal ice, “folks know and are exploiting it,” he said.

The delay in regulations can be attributed to several factors, according to Gielow. First, the FAA is “under-resourced and under-manned,” with only about 40 people in the division that addresses drones and perhaps five at the research sites. Second, the agency does not regulate by size and weight of drones and does not conduct risk analyses, as other countries do.

In addition, technology is moving too fast for regulations to keep up, according to Gielow.

“There is nothing sinister,” he said.

Parker Gyokeres, who operates Propellerheads, an aerial photography company, explained “what it’s like to be the guy on the other end of the rope.” He emphasized that responsible operators want regulations. Rules are needed before a DJii Phantom, a drone which can be purchased for $500, hits a jet airliner, he said.