By Chuck Woodbury
I got angry at first when I read about this outrageous fine. How ridiculous! A guy who flew a drone for pleasure (well, maybe not just pleasure) broke some FAA rules and ended up with a ridiculous $182,000 fine. But after a little research, I realized why the FAA went after this fellow, and understood that he was likely asking for it.
The story goes that in early November, a Philadelphia man named Mikey, who flies a drone without a professional license, received 123 notices of infractions from the FAA, $1,500 for each one. The total amount in civil penalties added up to $182,004. The violations were related to drone videos he live-streamed on YouTube from December 2019 to this past August.
Mikey operates a YouTube channel called PhillyDroneLife.
Popular YouTube attorney Steve Lehto posted a video about Mikey’s misfortune, which you can watch here. This is where I learned about this.
The FAA issued the fines for various infractions such as flying over 400 feet, reckless flying, flying in the rain, fog, and in strong winds. Mikey contacted lawyers who told him it might take $50,000 to $100,000 for him to fight the charges in court.
Watch Lehto’s video to learn more, but here is why he believes Mikey was fined. It was because he streamed the videos live, in which it was documented when, exactly, the flights were taken, the elevation and all other details. Had he instead, for example, posted recorded videos of drone flights without flight data visible, the FAA would not know conclusively when the flights were made. It could have been years earlier, long after the statute of limitations for charging Mikey with a crime had expired. And even if the videos showed the date of the flight, if enough time had passed and the statute of limitations had passed, the FAA would have no power to fine him.
Interestingly, the FAA did not impose fines on any of Mikey’s flights that were not live streamed, perhaps for those reasons.
But in Mikey’s live-streamed videos, the FAA could see exactly what day and time he flew, at what elevation, and warning messages that popped up on his monitor about illegal or dangerous flying conditions. Below is one frame of him flying high over downtown Philadelphia. As you can see, Mikey could plainly see in his monitor that he was flying 860 feet over the town, way higher than the 400-foot legal limit. The date of the flight is also visible because the video was live-streamed.
A week ago, on his YouTube channel, Mikey live-streamed a rambling, long-winded rant defending his actions, basically saying he was unaware of the laws he had broken, or making excuses. He cried, and thanked viewers who donated money in real time to support him.
I watched a recording of one of the videos he had live-streamed. Mikey, I quickly discovered, is a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed guy — no crime there — but as I watched him fly his drone right over downtown Philadelphia at 1,000 feet or higher, in-between and around skyscrapers, I was horrified. I don’t know if a helicopter flying in the area could be seriously harmed if it struck a drone, but I concluded that no way should a drone hobbyist be allowed to fly in such an area. You can watch the video here. Don’t watch if foul language offends you.
My point? If you fly a drone, do it legally. If you live-stream be extra careful. There are gray areas with this new technology and it’s easy to cross the line. Mikey was way out of bounds and is paying a huge price. But the lesson here is that if you fly a drone, as many RVers do, follow the rules or risk having a fun hobby turn into a nightmare.