This Fireworks Drone Is Awesome"“and Illegal

An amazing video of eye-level fireworks violates several regulations.

National Journal

The coolest video of this Fourth of July weekend also happens to be illegal, thanks to federal regulations that limit the use of small aircraft.

Jos Stiglingh's drone-shot video of a fireworks show captured millions of views as awed watchers took in the up-close-and-personal look of the colorful explosions. Sparks and smoke whizzed by the camera, attached to a small, four-rotor drone.

But this post-vacation Monday's back-to-reality moment includes a reminder that drone pilots face strict limits on how they operate their aircraft.

While it's unclear how high Stiglingh's drone flew, the FAA limits the aircraft to below 400 feet.

Joe Rozzi, vice president of Ohio-based Rozzi Fireworks, said he had seen the video and estimated a show of that nature has shells exploding about 500 feet in the air (at times, the drone appeared to be above the level of those explosions). "I'm surprised the drone didn't get taken out of the sky," he said. "I thought it was neat."

However, Congress has carved out some exemptions to the FAA's ability to regulate "model aircraft" weighing less than 55 pounds. This only applies to recreational flights, and it's unclear if Stiglingh's flight meets this criteria. But the 400-foot ceiling isn't the only regulation pilots have to worry about.

When Congress gave greater leeway to model airplanes, it also directed they had to be flown in the line of sight of their operator. It's implausible that Stiglingh's naked eye could keep watch on his drone, hundreds of feet in the air, at night, in the midst of near-constant explosions.

Model aircraft pilots must also alert air traffic controllers when they fly within five miles of airports. It appears the fireworks show was well within that range of Palm Beach International Airport. Stiglingh hasn't specified if he obtained clearance.

In addition, the agency says drones should be flown away from populated areas. A fireworks show, along with the inevitable crowds it draws, is unlikely to meet that description.

The FAA's rules also prohibit "careless or reckless" flying of aircraft; it's probably not a stretch to say zooming through exploding shells could fall under that category. If a rocket were to strike the drone and veer off course, it could pose hazards to people nearby.

Along with the FAA rules, the Coast Guard had also established guidelines for the West Palm Beach, Fla., show, banning any "vehicle, vessel, or object" in designated safety zones near the fireworks.

Stiglingh would also face trouble if he tried to use his drone footage for profit. Commercial drones are currently banned by the FAA.

The video — and the FAA's response — illustrate a growing problem for the agency. While drone technology becomes more and more accessible, most amateur pilots don't have a full awareness of the agency's policies. As such, the agency has been hesitant to punish users who violate its rules (in the commercial sphere, it's only tried to prosecute one violator so far, while many more have gotten away with warnings — and free publicity).

As a result, the FAA is stuck playing regulatory Whac-A-Mole, waiting for violators to post videos of their exploits and then swooping in to tell them not to do it again. It would be impossible to monitor or predict every drone activity, and the FAA lacks the resources to police all likely drone hotspots.

For now, the FAA's best course of action seems to be to better educate the public on its rules — and hope growing awareness keeps fliers out of trouble spots. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.