On the Fourth of July last year, pilot David Quinones flew a camera drone in Coney Island, Brooklyn while the famous Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest was going on.
His drone caught the attention of the New York Police Department, which tossed him in jail for five hours.
Three months later, he became the first and so far only person to have his manned aircraft license suspended by the Federal Aviation Administration for flying a drone.
"I was right there on the beach over private property—at the same time, they had their hot dog thing going on a block or two away," Quinones, a cofounder of the New York City-based aerial photography company SkyCamUSA, told me. "I did not fly over their hot dog thing or anywhere near it. But because it was the Fourth of July and a whole hierarchy of the NYPD was there, they overreacted and over responded. They put me in handcuffs, took me away, took my drone."
Quinones was never charged and New York City eventually threw out a ticket they gave him for the incident.
In October 2015, Quinones got a letter from the FAA informing him that the agency was suspending his license to fly manned aircraft commercially for three months because of the incident, which is notable, because the punishment has never happened before or since.
"If you fail to surrender your [pilot's] certificate to FAA counsel as required by this order," the letter Quinones got reads. "You will also be subject to further legal enforcement action, including a civil penalty of up to $1,100 a day for each day you fail to surrender your certificate."
"A suspension can have significant impact on someone's livelihood, continuing repercussions. It's on your record forever."
The FAA's legal actions against drone operators has been all over the map, according to documents obtained by Motherboard using the Freedom of Information Act. Hobbyists have been fined thousands of dollars for flying drones over sporting events or crashing them into public buildings, while some commercial pilots have been fined for "careless or reckless" flying, but not for the mere act of flying their drones commercially without FAA authorization.
Quinones's case is very different from the other 23 cases I analyzed. The suspension of a pilot's license is, in the view of many experts, much worse than a fine.
"Pilots rely on their licenses to work," Loretta Alkalay, who worked as a lawyer in the FAA's regional offices for 30 years and now teaches drone law at Vaughn College of Aeronautics, told me. "A suspension can have significant impact on someone's livelihood, continuing repercussions. It's on your record forever."
Why does it matter that the FAA is suspending commercial pilot licenses for drone operations that it deems are illegal? Well, people who operate drone businesses have been waiting for the FAA to enact regulations that would allow them to fly with FAA permission. In the meantime, the laws are vague. To add some legitimacy to the situation, the FAA has started granting what are known as "Section 333 exemptions" that allow businesses to operate now without regulations. The catch? In order to fly a drone under this exemption, you are technically supposed to have a license to fly manned aircraft.
With the Quinones case, the FAA is saying that if you don't comply with its confusing and often arbitrary distinction of what is a "legal" drone flight, it can strip you of your license. When I contacted the FAA, it declined to comment specifically on the case, citing privacy concerns. However, I was pointed to a 336-page document that notes that the FAA reserves the right to revoke manned pilot licenses for drone violations.
"For a deliberate, egregious violation by a certificate holder, regardless of whether the certificate holder is exercising the privileges of the certificate in connection with the violations associated with a UAS operation, certificate action, may be appropriate," a document dated October 10, 2014 reads.
"The FAA has been abusing their powers. They've been finding people where fines aren't due, changing things left and right."
As drone lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht pointed out in a blog post earlier this year, this threat is likely to make drone operations in general much less safe, because some of the country's safest pilots are likely to stay away from the industry altogether.
"The most highly experienced and knowledgeable group of people who can operate safely in the national airspace are on the sidelines in fear of losing their licenses or in the worst case, their livelihood," he wrote. "This creates a 'vacuum' of knowledge and also a vacuum in the culture of drone operators."
Quinones says he didn't fight the case because he didn't understand the implications of what it would mean. He's been flying drones almost exclusively for international clients since his license was revoked.
"I chose not to pursue it because I didn't know what could happen if I fought it. I don't have the money for a lawyer or time for this nonsense," he said. "The FAA has been abusing their powers. They've been finding people where fines aren't due, changing things left and right. They're like a bully on the block pushing their agenda."