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FAA proposes record fine against a drone operator for flying in crowded NYC, Chicago airspace

By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday proposed a record $1.9 million fine against an aerial photography company for flying drones in crowded New York and Chicago airspace without permission.

SkyPan International Inc. of Chicago operated 65 unauthorized flights between March 2012 and December 2014 in some of the nation’s most congested airspace, the FAA said in a statement.

Forty-three flights were in the heavily restricted Class B New York airspace without air traffic control clearance, the agency said. Class B airspace is generally from the ground up to 10,000 feet in altitude, and often shaped like an inverted wedding cake with a 5-mile radius around a major airport at the bottom and an approximate 40-mile radius near the top.

The drones also lacked the two-way radio, transponder and altitude-reporting equipment required of manned aircraft.

Flying drones in violation of federal regulations “is illegal and can be dangerous,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”

Karl Brewick, a SkyPan production coordinator, said the company had not had a chance to review the fine proposal and had no immediate comment. SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the FAA. The company’s website includes photos of the New York and Chicago skylines, and proclaims its drones are “ushering in a whole new world of aerial and panoramic photography.”

The FAA proposed regulations this year to allow greater use of commercial drones. But SkyPan’s operations probably still would be prohibited under the regulations because the flights took place at higher altitudes than would be permitted and over densely developed areas.

The previous largest fine for drone operations was $18,700, proposed in September against Xizmo Media, a New York video production company, the FAA said.

One reason the fine against SkyPan is so large is because FAA inspectors asked the company to stop making the flights but they continued anyway, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.

Tuesday’s announcement comes one day before an FAA official is expected to face tough questioning at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on what the agency is doing to address safety hazards created by drones flying too close to manned aircraft.

FAA officials have said they are receiving multiple reports daily of drones flying in the vicinity of airports and airplanes. Between November 2014 and August 2015, the FAA received over 700 reports by pilots of drone sightings, although questions have been raised about whether some reports involved birds mistaken for drones. Most of the flights appear to be unauthorized.

Hobbyists are allowed to fly drones as long as they stay 5 miles away from an airport and fly no higher than 400 feet. The FAA has granted about 1,700 permits to commercial operators with similar restrictions.

Also, the U.S. Forest Service has reported 18 unauthorized drone flights above or near wildfires, and that 10 of the incidents hampered aerial fire-fighting operations.

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