In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration shook up the drone industry by requiring that drone pilots obtain a license if they want to operate commercially.
After years of preparation and debate leading up to the licensing rules, it doesn’t seem that the FAA is aggressively using them to crack down on commercial pilots operating illegally. So far, the FAA has caught and punished only one drone pilot for operating a drone business without a license, according to documents obtained by MarketWatch through the Freedom of Information Act.
The punishment? A warning notice.
Less than a week after the rules went into effect, Jeffrey Slentz wanted some overhead shots of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., for a rap-music video. Before the Kansas City Royals played a game, Slentz flew his DJI Phantom 3 over the stadium.
Police followed the drone to Slentz as he landed it, and the officer was “pretty upset.”
“He was looking for any way to penalize or arrest me,” Slentz said. “He made several calls to the FBI and the FAA.”
The agitated officer was probably not a fan of the ultimate result: A warning letter arrived a week later and prompted Slentz to go get a drone pilots license. That is the only enforcement action the FAA has taken against unregulated commercial-drone pilots in more than a year and a half since the rules passed, according to the records obtained.
An FAA spokesman said that it is possible the agency may be handling violation allegations via education, not enforcement, which may explain why only four records were returned via MarketWatch’s FOIA request for enforcement data related to the licensing rules, known as Part 107. The other three enforcement actions involved licensed pilots who violated rules in which drones can be operated, according to the records. In all of those instances, the penalty was either a warning letter or the operator had to take a safety course at a local Flight Standards District Office.
The lack of enforcement has led licensed commercial pilots to wonder why they made the effort. Many say they know of drone businesses operating in their cities — often their competitors — who don’t have a license.
“It’s annoying that other drone businesses are operating without a license and I have no competitive advantage,” said Flo Minton, a Florida-based photographer who holds a remote pilot certificate with the FAA. “I went through all this trouble to pass the test to get my license, including paying for a study course and the test fee, and it took me weeks to study.”
Minton said she has at least two competitors in the area who shoot aerial photographs for their real-estate business, and neither has an FAA license. The FAA has made its database of certified drone pilots publicly searchable online.
“If you’re not going to enforce it, then why enact a regulation?”