Hidden camera investigation finds illegal commercial drone use in US

From an Indiana TV station. There is some really bad stuff here, including this: "When he did not know he was speaking to a reporter, Spencer said he could fly at any altitude that a customer would want.  He said he "wasn't supposed to" fly above 400 feet, but he sometimes flew above 1,000 feet or higher, depending on the job."

Needless to say, that's reckless and irresponsible. Read the whole piece:

INDIANAPOLIS - A hidden camera investigation from the Call 6 Investigators found a growing threat from illegal business flights of drones nationwide, prompting concerns from Indianapolis pilots and calls for action in Congress.

While the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved a single drone flight for business purposes anywhere in the country, the Call 6 Investigators found many businesses and entrepreneurs flying drones for aerial photography, including several that advertise drone flights in Indiana.  

The Call 6 Investigators also pushed for the release of new documents from the FAA that show a rising number of safety complaints from pilots, as well as several drone companies that continue to fly after being warned by the FAA that their flights are illegal.

"I hope that the FAA gets involved in this and we get this stopped. This is a dangerous situation," Indianapolis pilot Roger Tomey said in response to the Call 6 Investigators' report.

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are only legal for hobbyists to fly under 400 feet of altitude and away from airports and populated areas, according to standing FAA rule s. The agency has ruled that any time money changes hands or profits are generated from flying a drone, those hobbyist rules no longer allow such flights.

The Call 6 Investigators requested enforcement documents, never before released by FAA, showing a rising number of complaints about drones surprising manned aircraft pilots in the air.  The documents also show the FAA frequently issuing cease and desist letters or other warnings to drone services found to be advertising flights for hire, usually to produce aerial photography. 

Among the highlights of those enforcement documents reviewed by Call 6 Investigators:

  • 23 investigations were launched by FAA over the past two- years in response to complaints or inspectors finding drone flights depicted online
  • 10 drone operators received warning letters or advisories that their flights were illegal
  • 5 unauthorized drones were spotted by pilots and reported to FAA
  • Several drone operators garnered new complaints after having been previously warned by the FAA that their flights were illegal

In some cases, the FAA closed its investigations into illegal drone flights when the suspected drone operators would simply claim that photos posted online were actually taken from licensed and manned planes or helicopters.

"It concerns me greatly. This is an accident waiting to happen," said Tomey. "You’'re going to end up causing a very serious situation that could cost somebody their life," he said, calling the Call 6 Investigators reporting "highly upsetting."

FAA enforcement records provided to the Call 6 Investigators also included:

  • March 2011 -- The only fine ever issued: A proposed $10,000 fine against a drone operator for an aerial picture-taking flight at University of Virginia (Charlottesville), where FAA inspectors wrote that dangerous maneuvers were performed near bystanders.
  • March 2012 -- FAA inspectors wrote that drones were used in filming of "On Dangerous Ground" in Alaska.  Case closed when drone operator couldn't be established.
  • October 2012 -- FAA asked for Orlando police assistance in locating a drone near an airport.  Pictures were posted online, but case was closed when operator couldn't be established.
  • Several investigations launched in New York City after photos were posted online or drones were reported by bystanders.
  • August 2012 -- Contractor hired to map out evacuation routes for FEMA admitted to flying up to 10,000 feet without any approval by FAA
  • November 2012 -- Operator of drone warned to stop after online video showed flight near Winthrop, Mass.
  • September 2012 -- Air traffic controller in Warwick, R.I. complains of drone flying in his airspace
  • September 2011 -- Pilot in Houston reported spotting drone flying near him along Interstate 10 near downtown
  • May 2012 -- Pilot in Fredericksburg, Va. reported seeing drone pass within 100 feet of his wing

In March of this year, an Alitalia airliner made national news headlines when the pilot reported spotting a drone as he was trying to land at New York's JFK Airport.

An Indianapolis pilot of a small plane reported spotting a drone to airport managers in Greenwood.  Those managers told Call 6 Investigators that the pilot spotted the drone a few hundred feet below him and flying in the opposite direction at a high rate of speed.

Another Indianapolis pilot, Tom Jeffries, who runs a flight school at the same Greenwood airport, said, "It just puts a whole new dimension on the idea of safety, because we're concerned about birds, we're concerned about other airplanes, and now we're throwing in something that is totally uncontrolled.

"They're not going to appear on radar, you're never going to see them until they hit something," Jeffries said.

"When they suck one of those drones into the engine of an airplane, then it'll get everybody's attention.  And they'll have

to do something at that point," he said.

Hidden cameras aimed at Indianapolis drone flight

The Call 6 Investigators found several companies advertising drone flights anywhere in Indiana. One company quoted the price of $500 per hour or $2,000 per day for snapping photos or shooting video from a drone.

That company representative said he had flown hundreds of flights for TV commercials and real estate ventures, including a TV commercial last month for a Houston car dealership.

The Call 6 Investigators went undercover to hire another drone company for a flight above a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Indianapolis.

Brandon Spencer, owner of Drone Photo Services of Louisville, offered to snap photos of several parcels of real estate along Post Road and East 56th Street for $300, claiming he'd flown hundreds of other flights.

When he did not know he was speaking to a reporter, Spencer said he could fly at any altitude that a customer would want.  He said he "wasn't supposed to" fly above 400 feet, but he sometimes flew above 1,000 feet or higher, depending on the job.

Local pilots pointed out that they often fly at that same altitude in small planes and helicopters. Some pilots expressed concerns about mid-air collisions or "drones for hire" crashing into homes, cars, or people on the ground.

Spencer arrived for the arranged meeting and cameras were rolling as he scouted out a small lot from which to launch his drone. He removed the aircraft from the passenger seat of his pickup truck, strapped on a remote control device on a vest, attached a battery and then took to the air.

Passing motorists barely noticed as the drone rose into the air, clearing the tree line and then hovering more than 300 feet in the air.

After he was paid $300 for the aerial photos, the Call 6 Investigators team emerged to question him on camera.

When asked if he researched the laws on flying drones for profit, Spencer answered, "No … I just got into it thinking I could make a little money."

When asked if he was putting people in danger with flights that were not approved by the FAA, he answered, "Not that I know of."

While his company's website displayed pictures of a water treatment plant, construction sites and a pedestrian bridge in Louisville, he claimed no money changed hands for those flights.  

"You're actually my first paying customer," he told the Call 6 Investigators.

"I just figured, you know, they're selling it out there, I can buy it, I can get it and, it's a helicopter. People fly helicopters and planes all the time, put a camera on it and try to make a little bit of money. That's what I thought," he said.

"If I'm going to get in any trouble over it, it's not worth it," said Spencer.

He said he had paid $10,000 for his helicopter-like drone, known as an F800 Hexacopter that was made in China.

Several pilots and other drone operators also mentioned another leading competitor for paid drone flights known as Copter Kids LLC of Reno, Nev. Company representatives did not respond to emails requesting comment.

A spokesman with the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems section, Les Door, said that no commercial flights have ever been permitted anywhere in the country, including those involving real estate agents or news organizations.  

Several types of drones were on display for sale earlier this month at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. Television and news executives saw a number of aircraft that could be used for aerial photography once the FAA establishes guidelines.

Congress has mandated that the FAA come up with regulations for allowing commercial flights of drones in late 2014, but it remains unclear whether training will be required for all drone operators or whether air traffic controllers will be alerted to all flights.  

With so many flights taking to the air in advance of those regulations, the Call 6 Investigators asked FAA headquarters whether enough was being done to protect people from unauthorized drone flights. 

The agency responded with a written statement (in its entirety):

"The FAA thoroughly investigates possible violations of the agency's regulations by unmanned aircraft operators. In cases where we have verifiable proof of a violation, we do not hesitate to pursue enforcement action. Lacking such proof, we still make sure the operator understands FAA regulations and policy on unmanned aircraft systems. We expect to publish a proposed rule on small unmanned aircraft later this year that will offer regulations for a wide variety of users in the small UAS community, including commercial operators."

U.S. Representative Andre Carson , D-Indianapolis, member of the House aviation subcommittee, said the Call 6 Investigators' reporting has him pushing for action at the FAA and among members of his committee.


He wrote in a statement (in its entirety):

"As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation and as a former law enforcement officer, I am

very concerned about the instances where the FAA issued cease and desist orders against commercial operations of drones and they were ignored.  Commercial drones, including drones for rent, are not authorized under current law and pose a threat to public safety.    


“Even before the new regulations go into effect in 2015, we must ensure the FAA is enforcing current law as vigorously as possible and adequately protecting the safety of air traffic and those of us on the ground.  I will be raising these concerns with the committee, as well as the FAA.

“I also encourage all drone operators to do the right thing and stop all flights.  Unauthorized drone flights put lives at risk and should not be continued, even when FAA fails to enforce the law.”


A trade group that represents industries using robotics or unmanned aircraft, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va., has released a code of conduct for its members who may be testing or designing drones for future use.

"AUVSI condemns the misuse of UAS, and believes that anyone who abuses UAS technology should be held accountable," said the group's Melanie Hinton in an email to the Call 6 Investigators.

She said her group is working with the FAA and others to carve out rules for the safe operation of unmanned aircraft.

"AUVSI expects all users of UAS to abide by FAA guidelines, including receiving an FAA Certificate of Authorization before using the technology," she wrote.

Indiana State University in Terre Haute has actually started its own drone program to train students how to fly unmanned aircraft. The program's leader and another instructor did not respond to requests for comment.

Even local police agencies are not yet approved to fly drones for routine public safety missions. In January 2010, the nation's first-ever test flight of a police drone made headlines worldwide, but the FAA still hasn't drawn up plans for how police drones can be safely integrated into the nation's airspace.

Unlike commercial drones, police agencies can apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA for specific flights, but very few flights have actually been requested or approved, according to the FAA.

While police use of drones have spurred debate over civil liberties or spying on people without a warrant, the FAA's review of how to regulate police flights has focused solely on airspace safety.

The FAA is poised to announce six drone test sites around the country, including one in Indiana, where police or private commercial ventures will be able to test their aircraft prior to a full battery of regulations being issued for all drone flights.

For Jeffries, the Indianapolis flight instructor, it's a scary notion.  

"Everybody could have their own drone. They could do all kind of things from taking pictures, who knows, seeding their yard, anything! I mean, it's just organized confusion," he said. "It has some broad-reaching implications if we don't get some kind of control of what's going on."

Views: 6353

Comment by Euan Ramsay on April 26, 2013 at 12:59am

A rather depressing picture really, and one that will have serious implications for the hobbyist if this "anti-drone" movement gains momentum.

How bothered would we be if we had to pass a test and obtain a licence before we could fly - even as a hobbyist? Personally, it might be fun if it's done cost-effectively. But it won't be - it'll be expensive, cumbersome, restrictive and ineffective, and the hobby will be strangled of new blood before it has even gone mainstream, just like motorcycling is right now (in some European countries).

Comment by Euan Ramsay on April 26, 2013 at 1:01am

Personally, I think the 400ft rule is perfectly acceptable, and I think that not flying on an approach path or over crowds of people is just basic common sense. But it only takes a few bad apples...

Comment by W. Joe Taylor on April 26, 2013 at 1:03am


Thanks for keeping on top of this.  I'm just a little rat dog, and these high tech things just amaze and terrify me.  But even I can see that this article does 2 things: It makes me angry and scared.  I've been following this subject since 2005.  If all the members in the DIY drone community were surveyed I wonder how many are using the Ardupilot systems for commercial purposes.  The system really begs to be used for commercial purposes and would be incredible if used responsibly and safely.  It doesn't help any for the FAA to keep dragging their feet either.  It just makes me crazy, because anyone who has dealt with a Federal Agency knows how little they can cope with what might seem common sense to everyone else, and I have dealt with State, Federal, and Local regulators every day for 20 years, just to help clients comply with the well meaning, but frequently bizarre rules. Anyway, the technology is way ahead of the regulatory community, and the bureaucrats still do not appear to have a clue on how to draft the rules. Anyone interested in the progress or lack thereof might recall all the effort of Dr. Robin Murphy ( http://faculty.cs.tamu.edu/murphy/ ), who was the former chair of one of the advisory FAA committees, along with many others, and tried to help FAA draft rules, etc.  back in 2007 the FAA said that even the universities were prohibited from UAV research without Certification; i.e. just about shut the US research down.  A happy medium was made back in 2007 the "hobbiest rule" quoted above, which many of us are now familiar with "400 ft., manual flight, line of sight only, (not fpv, not for use in restricted air-space, not for any commercial use, and not via autonomous flight)" was agreed on, but is anyone using the APM 2.5 etc. like that, maybe, but probably not.  Wouldn't it seem that we should be some kind of trained pilot using these?  Who is even a "ground school" trained pilot using them?  How will we establish a training program for certification of DIY drone or other UAV pilots?  How many people are just buying one and with no training or safety awareness just blasting off?  Well that's what I did in 2005 and lukily had enough sense to do it in a remote area, thank God, like most of the videos posted on the web site, many of us are smart enough to do it in remote areas; well away from spectators and urban density or highways, etc.  We scoff at the fools who post their vids and laugh about crashing their arducopter into a building, or some other stupid thing.  Still, how many DIY drone pilots just don't give a hoot and say to heck with following the rules?   Violating the privacy of others is the least of our need to be worries.  Everyone of the developers knows what the risks are, because you have seen them posted again and again.. If 1 of every 10 pilots don't follow common sense safety,  say 40,000 + people in the US may have gotten into this "hobby" since 2005, that's somewhere upwards of 4000 guys/gals out there in the US, any one of which can cause us all to crash and burn.  Europe has some better rules - why don't we in the USA?   It is just a matter of time unless some safety training and skill training are made mandatory to people who do this, not to mention the liability release agreements to purchase, bla bla bla.   I don't blame the REAL pilots flying manned airplanes, jets, what ever.  But can we say that some 12 yr old to what ever age ignoramous will never fly an arducopter etc. into a commercial jet and accidentally kills someone(s)?  How many of the DIY Drones Open source developers will be sued out of their pants then, or hauled in for criminal charges - will they be simply criminally negligent for helping to develop these, or accessories to negligent homicide, or even a terrorist act?  Who even has the liability insurance for hobbiest flight?  We had better get serious about this, or we will all be remembering the good old days when we could fly these things.  Our community has had many discussions on this in the forums, blogs, etc.,  We really need a standing forum with regular up-dates on progress on a lobbying effort to congress and to the FAA.  Not just some "Ooo watch out and be safe" statement in the manual.  There needs to be a link to mandatory safety training and mandatory certification by buyers of these systems, hold harmless / liability insurance purchase before flight, etc., not just to protect others but to protect the DIY Drones community.  I bet this will get some responses from the lawyer haters or what have you's.  Well I am just a rat dog, and I'll go back to chewing my bone now...

Comment by Euan Ramsay on April 26, 2013 at 1:16am

 Europe has some better rules - why don't we in the USA?

Do they? I'm not so sure...and I am one.

Who even has the liability insurance for hobbiest flight?

I do, but I live is Switzerland, where club membership and a certificate of liability is required, and I must fly at approved sites. Luckily, these sites are numerous, and sensibly chosen.

Comment by Euan Ramsay on April 26, 2013 at 1:18am

Interesting sidenote: You FPV video-ers would love the scenery here...;-)

Comment by Euan Ramsay on April 26, 2013 at 1:21am

But can we say that some 12 yr old to what ever age ignoramous will never fly an arducopter etc. into a commercial jet and accidentally kills someone(s)? 

Replace "12 year old" with "terrorist", and I think you know where it goes from there

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 26, 2013 at 2:09am

Rant starts

Why not tell the FAA you want to use CAP 722 from the UK as your standard. Its good to see AUVSI throwing you all under the bus. They have to my knowledge never had a representative at the ARC meetings. 

Join RCAPA, its the only group that sat on ARC 1.0 with your interests at heart and its free, look for them on Facebook and start talking. Also here http://www.rcapa.net They are not on ARC 2.0 at sUAS News we had to issue a FOIA request to find out who was http://www.suasnews.com/2011/11/10245/uas-arc-2-0/ If you look at the list Ted from AV heads up ASTM F-38 http://www.suasnews.com/2012/01/11090/ted-wierzbanowski-of-aeroviro... this is the thing that will set the build standards. Quite by chance the proposed bins for size fit Raven, Puma and Qube very nicely. Ted spoke to Patrick on our podcast and he sounds like a nice chap but he must have half an eye towards civilian sales of their systems. http://www.suasnews.com/2012/09/18804/astm-f-38-uas-standards-updat... RCAPA petitioned to be on ARC 2.0 but along with the AMA are not http://www.suasnews.com/2012/01/11217/rcapa-petitions-faa%E2%80%99s... 

Before 2015 happens, and its not for you or me (I'm not in the USA anyhow) the FAA has to approve six test sites, they are looking at the Miss-O-Matic on sUAS News 8 months and 10 days behind. IMHO because they have yet again dragged their collective feet many more states and entities are going for it than if they were swift. The political influence that will be used is bound to call fall outs. I think its over 40 sites now trying. When six are chosen how long will the objections last for?  Oh look we have a section for all the FAA test site stories http://www.suasnews.com/category/faa-test-sites/ Once those sites are selected they will test airframes to be used by police fire and rescue. ie not you. Then once those airframes are flying happily and the FAA think its safe they will let jo public start flying commercially. The FAA themselves have said probably not before 2020.

The rulemaking that is 1 year 5 months behind and that figure really represents when I put the Miss-O-Matic back as I got so bored of changing the date all the time anyhow that is connected with this http://www.suasnews.com/2010/11/2782/the-sfar-part-107-shades-of-th...  When that happens you will have 90 days to comment and get your voice heard. It would be a plan to do that individually and with RCAPA in your corner. 

Several years ago USAF set 2047 as the year for civilian UA integration in the USA. It starts looking less funny.

I actually think what will happen is the CB radio situation where in the 70s the FCC could not cope so they just stopped issuing licences. The FAA will probably have to do that say sub 20kg and back that up with heavy fines for anybody that causes damage or harm.

Sorry for all the sUAS News links, we have been on this and trying to tell people what's what but it strikes me that most folks over there prefer to ignore the situation.

Rant ends

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on April 26, 2013 at 4:58am

Gary, come on, the FAA would never agree to use CAP722.  It was "not invented here". ;)  Simple as that.

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on April 26, 2013 at 6:24am

I just can't seem to get my head around how asinine it is that the FAA/Government/Media stick to this tired old paradigm that commercial drone use should be illegal, and that people violating this rule are acting unsafely, putting the public at risk.

But it's totally cool that Joe Dirt with $1000 to spend can buy his own UAV, fly it around pretty much anywhere he wants, with no knowledge, no insurance, and no professionalism... as a hobbyist, and that's totally cool.

But the second somebody starts acting professionally... well that's just dangerous and illegal.

You'd think it would be the other way around.  

Are there any other areas in society where it is deemed safe to do something as an amateur, but not safe to do it as a professional?  

Comment by Dwgsparky on April 26, 2013 at 10:14am


This whole amateur/ professional nonsense is a smokescreen by the FAA to hide the fact that they have no hope of controlling this situation. I want one person to disprove this crazy situation.

As an experience RC flyer for 30yrs+ I can fly my RC plane anywhere as long as I dont go near airports/ people and buit up areas, the AMA recommandation (NOT law) is that I fly below 400'

Question 1, how do I or the authorities PROVE I am at or above that 400' requirement?? If they cannot prove it then I am innocent. an expert could express his view that I am above 400'  but I am still innocent. !!

I strap my Iphone onto the plane and take pictures, I am still innocent. ! I sell that picture to you and I am guilty because I made money.

Now I put an APM in the same plane and I can now PROVE I was below 400' but Im still guilty because I made a few dollars.

IMHO it is much safer to fly with a flight controller and telemetry than just RC and I do both. If my plane flies out of RC range then it will failsafe, engine stops and the plane crashes, it does not land!!

At least with the flight controller and telemetry I have a good chance it will return and NOT crash.


to answer R_lefebvre's question. how about mouth to mouth resusitation? you can do it but you will not see a USA doctor doing it on his day off. too much liability. !! (No offence to doctors, I am sure some would respond)



You need to be a member of DIY Drones to add comments!

Join DIY Drones

© 2019   Created by Chris Anderson.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service