Just as soon as the Minnesota-based Lakemaid Beer company excited everyone by delivering beer to ice fisherman with drones, the Federal Aviation Administration ruined their fun by demanding that they cease operations. But Lakemaid isn't the only company that's been harassed by the agency. Since 2012, the agency has sent official notices to 13 companies for the commercial use of drones.
Motherboard recently obtained the official documentation, which was released in response to a source's Freedom of Information Act request. All the letters are pretty straightforward, and most come from regional FAA offices. Most of them are note that the FAA does not allow the commercial use of drones, and that it only allows the use of drones if its flyers have a Certificate of Authorization (usually granted to public agencies and law enforcement), an Experimental Certification, or are recreational hobbyists.
Sometimes they note how the FAA became aware of the company, other times they do not. The companies include aerial photography businesses, storm chasers, National Geographic videographers, and safety inspectors. The list is an interesting look at what people plan on doing with drones.
Some people have ignored it, some people have said they didn't get the notice, others have stopped doing aerial photography, and some companies have folded altogether. The owner of one company I reached said he's continued operating, but he's "learned it's not wise to do anything to put yourself on the FAA's radar."
He said that there are no official regulations that say you can't fly a drone commercially, only a policy letter written in 2007 that's not binding. That policy letter is at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit involving Rafael Pirker, a 29-year-old Swiss citizen who had been on the FAA's radar for some time for flying near the Statue of Liberty in New York City. When Pirker took money to make an ad at the University of Virginia, the FAA hit him with a $10,000 reckless flying charge that is being fought in court. He remains the only person fined while flying a commercial drone.
Another drone operator, Chris Servicky of Seattle's Drones West, put it even more bluntly. "Either we can or we can't do it," he said. "This wishy washy convoluted mess is a disaster."
Les Dorr, a spokesperson for the FAA, says that they send cease-and-desist notices before considering any other alternatives because their goal is "simply to stop commercial operation."
"Whenever we find out about a suspected commercial operation, we either send them a cease-and-desist order or we may call them," he said, adding that those who have received letters have "not been found to be acting in a careless and reckless manner."
In addition to these companies, the FAA has made many more phone calls, but has not followed up with formal cease-and-desist orders. The FAA did send cease-and-desist notices to professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri for operating drone journalism programs. We'll do a follow up on how they're handling the situation, but because they were not trying to operate for profit, we'll leave them out of this one.
Drones West LLC; Seattle, Washington
Date of Notice: June 11, 2013
Poor guys. According to the FAA notice, the agency found out about the company due to a conversation between the company and an FAA safety inspector. "You provided information on your operation that includes flying uncertified small UAS helicopters for hire for aerial photography," reads the report. The company also builds and sell its own drones.
Ceased & Desisted? No. Chris Servicky, a licensed helicopter pilot who helps run the company, says they never got the FAA's letter and says that he talked to the FAA about trying to get certified and they said no.
"They don't want you to make money off of it, so we sell the editing of the video," he said. "It's so convoluted. What if I wanted to sell you a picture of your house and I wanted to use a kite? It's the same thing. They're selling these things with cameras on them, don't tell me I can't make money with it. We're not killing anybody."
Hover Effect; Sausalito, Texas
Date of Notice: July 5, 2012
The company offers "high resolution aerial photography and video using remotely controlled helicopters," and has done National Geographic shoots in the Arctic, made a Turner Sports documentary about the 1991-1992 Duke basketball team, and filmed for Discovery Channel's Shark Week and A&E's Storage Wars.
Devin Hendrick, the company's owner and pilot, has been nominated for an Emmy for his work with National Geographic on "Ice Bear." He's been flying for 18 years. He also offers (offered?) aerial real estate photography. The FAA claimed that, based on their review of the website "hovercraft.com," they inferred Hendrick was operating commercially.
Ceased & Desisted? No. Hover Effect is still posting real estate videos on Vimeo, though Hendrick did not respond to an email from Motherboard and the company's Facebook page hasn't been updated in more than two years. Some of the properties he's advertising for are still on the market with Christies.
HyBird Video LLC; Grandview, Missouri
Date of Notice: Unknown
This company has deleted its Facebook and its website. The note the company received from the FAA was particularly pointed: Chris Grotewohl of the agency told its owner that "the Grandview and local law enforcement agencies will be notified of this operation."
Ceased & Desisted? Yes.
Gunn Photography Services; Cleveland, Ohio
Date of Notice: Unknown.
The company offers aerial photography and video of construction, job site progress, golf courses, real estate, and even offers "law enforcement aerial surveillance" and "emergency services."
Ceased & Desisted? No. Matt Gunn claims he never got the FAA's letter. "I need to contact the local FAA and verify what's going on," he told me. The FAA sent its original letter to an address in Georgia.
SkEyeball Productions; Park Glen, Texas
Date of notice: Sept. 25, 2012
Alvin Brunner of the FAA became aware of Philip Frank's company because "an article from the Villages of Park Glen Neighborhood Association newsletter was handed to [him], which caught [his] attention." In the newsletter article, Frank notes that he's been flying helicopters since the late 1980s and RC helicopters since 1998. He asked if anyone "is interested in aerial pictures or video."
Ceased & Desisted? Frank has uploaded some videos within the last six months, but it's unclear if he's operating only as a hobby or if he charges money. He did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.
TVN Weather; Norman, Oklahoma
Date of Notice: May 16, 2013
Reed Timmer chases tornadoes and sometimes uses drones to get a closer look. He also offers "real-time warnings" to all sorts of companies. He filmed for the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers, and is super popular on Twitter. In one of the Storm Chasers videos, a local news station uses a helicopter to fly frighteningly close to a tornado. Timmer uses drones. Which seems safer? Also, why is the FAA worried about drone-to-aircraft collisions in a freaking tornado?
Ceased & Desisted? Unclear. Timmer did not respond to my attempts to reach him and no videos with obvious use of drones have been posted recently.
Flares & Stacks; Conroe, Texas
Date of Notice: August 30, 2012
FAA notes that Flares & Stacks, which specializes in the "maintenance of combustion equipment, using the latest technological advances in the industry," once advertised using drones for the "aerial inspection of flare tips and various stacks." Sounds about right, given the name of the company. It offers a wonderful aerial flare inspection gallery here.
Ceased & Desisted? No. A representative for the company said they are still offering aerial survey but declined further comment.
Hawkeye Media; Fort Worth, Texas
Date of Notice: September 12, 2012
The company offers aerial photography of bridges, real estate, amusement parks, real estate, and universities.
Ceased & Desisted? No. The company now does video under the HeliconTV name, however. Helicon's last real estate ad was uploaded last month.
KJ Productions; Enid, Oklahoma
Date of Notice: April 10, 2013
Offers all sorts of video and commercial production in Oklahoma. The FAA was tipped off due to an enidnews.com article talking about the technology. According to that article, KJ Productions is using a $10,000 hexacopter that's 30 inches across and 25 inches tall.
Ceased & Desisted? Doesn't look like it. A car dealership commercial posted last month sure has some aerial footage in it.
Price-Edwards & Co.; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Date of Notice: June 25, 2013
The FAA was tipped off by this The Oklahoman news article. The real estate firm clearly has a few photos on their website that were taken aerially.
Ceased & Desisted? A rep for the company gave us a "no comment."
Elevated Work; Boulder, Colorado
Date of Notice: Unknown
They've got a slick website, a cool logo, nice production values on their promo video, and offer to take aerial photography and video of real estate, golf courses, action sports, and weddings. They filmed promos for Campfest 2012 and the Tour of Utah 2012. It looks like the company also built the drones used to film.
Ceased & Desisted? The company sure looks defunct. I got no response to my email and their social media has been dead since 2012.
SkyGolf Productions; Jacksonville, Florida
Date of Notice: May 21, 2012
The company, which took aerial photos and video of golf courses, appears to be defunct.
Ceased & Desisted? Yes.
PhotoPlay Aerials; Maryville, Tennessee
Date of Notice: August 30, 2012
"Photoplay Studios produces still images and video aerials using our blimp system and or our Tethered Remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) which is an efficient cost alternative to fixed wing aircraft and full-sized helicopters for all aerial support applications," the company says. The FAA found out through a Knoxville News Sentinel article. Neil Crosby, owner of the company, told the Sentinel that "the kids love it and you can see women love it. It's a sexy-looking R2D2."
Ceased & Desisted? The company's website won't load and Crosby did not respond to a request for comment, but from social media it seems like the company is still operating.