FOIA Request Reveals FAA UAS Enforcement Data


Back in April I filed a FOIA request with the FAA requesting the following documents:

“All releasable records related to civil enforcement actions or certificate actions against operators of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or model aircraft, initiated in 2014 or 2015. This request includes, but is not limited to, letters of investigation, notices of penalty assessment, investigative reports, and other releasable documents, [and] a list of all incidents involving unmanned aerial systems or model aircraft that have been investigated by the FAA in 2014 or 2015 but are still pending or did not result in enforcement action, and all releasable documents related to those incidents.”

After several months of back of forth correspondence with the FAA's FOIA personnel requesting extensions of the response deadline, I finally received a response on August 13. While the FAA did not provide me with copies of actual enforcement action documents such as letters of investigation or notices of penalty assessment (I will follow up to see if any of those will be forthcoming), they did provide me with a list of all UAS related incidents/investigations thus far in 2015. The list contains 237 records from the FAA's National Program Tracking and Reporting System (NPTRS) and one record from the Accident / Incident Data System.

While I will leave it to professional journalists to conduct a more detailed analysis of the 237 records from the NPTRS system, here are a few interesting facts I gleaned from reading through the list:

  • The vast majority of incidents recorded are unsubstantiated reports of UAS sightings by pilots or home owners where the FAA was never able to conclusively prove that a UAS was flown in the area or identify the UAS operator. In at least a couple cases, the FAA concluded the object sighted was likely a weather balloon or party balloons. To me, this suggests that whatever regulations are ultimately passed, the FAA will have a very difficult time actually enforcing them.
  • Most other investigations resulted from complaints about unauthorized commercial UAS operations, and resulted in the FAA sending out their standard form letter advising the operator to apply for a Sec. 333 exemption.
  • Of the 237 records, only two appear to have resulted in new civil enforcement cases being filed:
    • The first was the infamous incident where a drunken government employee crashed a quadcopter on the White House lawn. While there appears to have been some disagreement between FAA officials as to whether an enforcement action was truly merited, the final decision appears to have been to file an enforcement case. A Letter of Investigation was sent on May 12 and the most recent update in that file, dated May 20, said, "Washington FSDO finishes enforcement package for Eastern Region based on the United States Secret Service report." I do not recall seeing it reported in the media that this incident actually resulted in an enforcement action by the FAA.
    • The second enforcement case concerns an incident that occurred on January 28, 2015 at Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska, where a quadcopter was flown too close to the airport and a helicopter on a training flight with an instructor and student on-board had to take evasive action. The local police tracked down the drone pilot and put the FAA in-touch with him. The drone operator was contrite and the incident appeared unintentional. While the local safety inspector considered education appropriate in this case, he appears to have been overruled by the legal department, which insisted on initiating a civil enforcement action. The current status of this case is unknown.
  • While no formal enforcement action appears to have resulted, a Letter of Investigation and a couple subpoenas were generated in the course of the FAA investigating a news report by WFAA News of Dallas, which aired a story on November 7, 2013 featuring Louisiana Hog Control operating a UAS to hunt feral hogs. The FAA subpoenaed and interviewed several reporters involved in producing the story.
  • The FAA received several complaints over animal rights groups flying UAS for their activism. Each of these investigations was closed when the safety officials concluded the animal rights groups were operating safely as model aircraft.
  • Several reports involve loss of control of military or border patrol UAVs.
  • In one record dated April 20, 2015, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) Government and Regulatory Affairs Office reported a pair of UAS operators who flew UAS over community events. That investigation was closed when the FAA talked to the two men who stated that they did not know the rules and promised not to fly over crowds again. I found this interesting since it appears on occasion the AMA is actively reporting UAS operators to the FAA.
  • The only record from the Accident/Incident Data System concerned an incident on November 15, 2014 when a UAS struck a person in the parking lot of the Bryant-Denny Football Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. No injuries were reported.

I am sure there are many more interesting things to be gleaned from these records, but those are the highlights I have noticed so far. Links to the PDF files on Dropbox of the documents I received can be found below.

FAA Response Letter

Responsive Documents

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  • Thanks for submitting the FOIA requests! Happy to see real data about this.

  • The Unidentified Flying Objects of the 20th century are no more.  Now they are all "drones".

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