The Federal Aviation Administration is now officially investigating the Florida drone pilot it contacted earlier this month for monetizing his videos on YouTube.
The new investigation, the FAA says, is purely safety-related.
Jayson Hanes is a hobby pilot who got in hot water with the agency for enabling the "monetization" feature on his YouTube videos. The agency says that was a "commercial use" of drones—which it forbids without a permit—even though there are no strict regulations making commercial flights unlawful.
The story, first reported here, quickly got national attention. Such a strict interpretation of the commercial use of drones is potentially a First Amendment violation, lawyers said.
Thursday, Hanes received a follow-up letter from the FAA's Tampa regional office saying that it is "investigating the operation of an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) in close proximity of airports from December 16, 2015 [sic] to present."
"The nature of this investigation is to determine if you operated unmanned aircraft as described above in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations, and if so, what, if any, enforcement action should be taken," the letter continued.
If the FAA does indeed decide to attempt to fine Hanes, it would be a rare enforcement action taken against a hobbyist. The agency fined a hobbyist who crashed into a Manhattan skyscraper $2,200 last summer, but, besides that, no other fines against hobby drone pilots have been reported.
In its second letter, the FAA appears to have backed off of the idea that Hanes is a commercial drone operator, and instead has tried to focus on proving that he flew recklessly or near an airport at some point.
Hanes says he had already spoken to the FAA on the phone in January about a flight near downtown Tampa in which he flew above the city's fog line, and thinks that the FAA is investigating a flight in which he flew at the St. Petersburg Pier. The agency did not specifically cite which flights it found unsafe—Hanes has posted dozens of videos on YouTube.
"I'm feeling harassed for certain at this point," Hanes told me. "Why is it so difficult for them to say what they mean and give examples [of what flights it is investigating] without being so damn ambiguous?"
I've reached out to the FAA for further clarification.