Why Drone Operators Shouldn’t Be Jailed

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When I was preparing this week’s Question of the Week, I was up to the third question when I realized that blood cheering for errant drone pilots to be jailed is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a distinctly bad thing, absent any malicious intent or egregious negligence.

To review, this concerns the story we ran last week describing the fate of drone operator Paul Skinner, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail after he lost control of his DJI quad while filming a parade in Seattle, possibly due to an electronics failure. I wasn’t able to get the court record but I did exchange email with Skinner’s attorney, Jeffrey Kradel. As we reported, Skinner’s drone struck a building and plummeted to the ground, injuring two people. One woman sustained a concussion.

According to a court sentencing memorandum, Skinner fessed up to the accident and attempted to make contact and restitution with the victims. During the trial, the judge recognized that the incident was an accident and that there was no criminal intent. He assigned the jail time simply because the prosecutor asked for it. (Full disclosure: Skinner had done time following a heroin addiction, but had evidently righted himself and was leading a productive life.)

From a distance, I can’t tell if Skinner acted negligently and Kradel declined to comment on the details. He did say that he had worked out a diversion agreement that wouldn’t have required a trial—or a conviction—but the city attorney refused to accept it against the recommendation of the city’s criminal division supervisor.

Instead, the city brought in an expert witness to explain that flying drones anywhere in a cityscape is irresponsible because of GPS interference potential. That in itself is a dubious claim, given that this technology has been and is widely deployed everywhere, including in cities.

Is this outcome in the public interest? Let me put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If pilots crash their airplanes, should they routinely be exposed to criminal charges? For the record, there is no consistent pattern of that in the U.S., even in cases of demonstrated negligence in which innocent bystanders are killed. Would we, as pilots, want to make it that way? I think I know the answer. So why should it be any different for drone operators, who are merely airmen of another stripe?

I think I know the answer to that, too. It’s mostly due to fear and resentment. Fear that remote-piloted technology endangers aircraft and bystanders and resentment that drone operators don’t have to slog through the same hoops, regulations and expense that us real pilots do. I get that, but the reality is that automated/remote piloted flight is here and more of it is coming. A lot more. It has and will displace manned flight.

As with any new technology, the collateral elements haven’t kept up. Regulations are behind, enforcement is flummoxed and the market is in turmoil on how to use these machines efficiently, safely or at all. Just as when aviation inserted itself into the industrial world more than a century ago, there will be missteps, accidents and even deaths as this new technology finds it feet. Reacting to it by criminalizing accidents—again, absent ill intent or gross negligence—strikes me as profoundly shortsighted. At some point in the distant future, we will reach balance and understanding of how this new machinery fits into modern life and we can only hope the fear recedes. In the meantime, buckle up. It's gonna be a rough ride.

And as with aviation, there truly are risks and like it or not, people on the ground not even involved with the activity are exposed. That’s life in a modern industrial society and why the FAA can’t protect against a Skyhawk crashing through Grandma’s picture window. It’s the price of progress. If there's such a thing as a fundamental right not to be struck by flying objects, good luck getting any entity to guarantee it. 

What’s to be done? Generally, when it comes to enforcing anything to do with things that fly, local jurisdictions defer to the FAA, who is supposed to know about such things. Local jurisdictions often do not and have a dog's breakfast of statutes they might apply, probably at the whim of political winds. The FAA has a menu of civil penalties from which to choose and hefty fines well publicized ought to provide a more just deterrent than time in the slammer. And the U.S. tort system isn’t exactly lacking in opportunities for an aggrieved plaintiff. That said, I can imagine circumstances in which errant drone operation could rise to the level of a criminal complaint. I just think this isn’t one of them.  

Comments (31)

The silence is deafening.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 8, 2017 5:37 AM    Report this comment

In general, people don't like drones because they represent an intrusion into their privacy. They give people the sense that someone is up to no good. A Cessna passing by overhead.. no so much. The "blood cheering", while not rational, is understandable.

Posted by: Ken Keen | March 8, 2017 7:39 AM    Report this comment

The reason for the silence can be answered by looking at the QOTW poll responses, Thomas. Apparently, the pilots who 'hang' here don't like drones. Too bad there wasn't a choice for electrocution. I'd be curious. :-) This is a tough crowd.

I thought that previous convictions weren't admissible in a Court but -- apparently -- the prosecutors can do what they want and the judge signs on. Who's on first? Wonderful.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 8, 2017 7:40 AM    Report this comment

"So why should it be any different for drone operators, who are merely airmen of another stripe?

I think I know the answer to that, too. It's mostly due to fear and resentment."


That is why I've been trying to be measured in my responses to drone incidents. What we as "real" pilots see the drone pilots to be, the rest of the population sees us pilots in the same manner. Except in both cases, we so-called real pilots are in the minority.

I do believe this is a case of "be careful what you wish for", since it is very likely to end up hurting us more than the drone pilots or general population.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 8, 2017 7:51 AM    Report this comment

I'm of the "no harm, no foul" school of thought. In this instance there was harm. We don't know how severe the concussion was. I'm and engineer and make my living with my brain. A fellow engineer sustained a concussion in an auto accident (not his fault - other guy crossed the center line). He couldn't work for almost month because he couldn't string together two consecutive related thoughts. He's seemingly fine now, but what if that had been permanent? Regarding your comment about GPS, I don't think they're using top of the line GPS antennae or receivers in these things, so building shadowing would be a concern. Did this guy deserve 30 days? I don't know; I'm too far removed and only have what information the media reports. But I don't think jail should be off the table categorically.

Posted by: Tony Shelton | March 8, 2017 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Key to this story is, as Paul notes, from the information available there is no way to make any sort of valid judgment as to whether or not Skinner acted negligently.

If his operation of the drone at the time & place was not in violation of any ordinance and was being done in a safe manner, then inadvertently hitting a building - regardless of the cause or end result - should have been handled in the civil damages world. On the other hand, if it was not legal to operate a drone there, or he had been doing things like buzzing people, he's toast.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 8, 2017 9:29 AM    Report this comment

Imagine a drone entangling a parachute canopy then imagine the wild ass pandemonium coming from those who jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2017 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Uhhh, Paul,

You didn't place the shoe fully on the other foot.

"So why should it be any different for drone operators, who are merely airmen of another stripe?"

Exactly that. It is different for drone operators. Question is, why?

The FAA has deemed that drones are in within their purview.

So then, shoe placed firmly on other foot, where's the NTSB investigation? Will this pilot lose is privileges? How about a 709 ride?

With the Skyhawk crashing through Grandma's picture window, we kinda know what to expect from the FAA/NTSB during the aftermath...

With a drone pilot striking a bystander, as far as the FAA/NTSB is concerned, the pilot walks.

Posted by: Robert Ore | March 8, 2017 9:56 AM    Report this comment

"So then, shoe placed firmly on other foot, where's the NTSB investigation? Will this pilot lose is privileges? How about a 709 ride?"

This occurred in 2015. There were no regulations governing this other than AMA guidelines. That's the part about collateral elements not keeping up. Not known whether AMA guidelines were violated in spirit or letter. Going forward, the FAA has an enforcement basis and one presumes they will use it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 8, 2017 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps the most thought-provoking line is: "If pilots crash their airplanes, should they routinely be exposed to criminal charges? For the record, there is no consistent pattern of that in the U.S., even in cases of demonstrated negligence in which innocent bystanders are killed. Would we, as pilots, want to make it that way?"

I have no interest in drones, but why would we want to inflict the burden of the FAA on drone pilots? So that the FAA could do to drone pilots what they've done for aviation? That's a "dog in the manger" mentality.

The scary part of the whole story is the "activist" DA and judge in this case. The drone operator fessed up--attempted restitution, and was willing to accept the "diversion agreement"--but the DA and the judge wanted their pound of flesh. One can only imagine the conversation in the jail cell--"What are 'ya in for, kid?" "Flying a drone in downtown Seattle." Even MORE perplexing--liberal Seattle is a "sanctuary city"--where they even are encouraged to ignore FEDERAL law--yet they give the guy 30 days for the petty offense of losing control of his drone.

We see it in the seaplane world--municipalities regularly try to "arrest" a pilot for operating a seaplane within the city limits. The charges are almost always dropped due to Federal control of airspace and the inability of the City to warn pilots of intended local recommendations, but the hapless pilot finds himself having to defend against an issue that is not within the control of the city. Similarly, municipalities regularly attempt to "ban" certain aircraft from airports, but the FAA assertion of control of the air usually prevails.

We can't have a hodgepodge of local regulation subject to the whim of activists. I rarely have anything good to say about the FAA, but Paul is correct--would we rather have locals attempting to control the airspace? Defend the FAA control.

Posted by: jim hanson | March 8, 2017 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Electrocution? Ask the victim.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2017 11:41 AM    Report this comment

You just don't get it, do you Burt?

It's ALL about "skin in the game". Aircraft pilots have it, drone jockeys don't. When an aircraft crashes, there is a reasonable presumption that the pilot did everything possible to avoid it. Absent dispositive evidence of careless and reckless disregard for the safety of others, the pilot whose aircraft fails is not considered liable.

The bar should be much higher for a drone operator. He is not directly manipulating the controls of the vehicle and he is not the one certain to be harmed if something goes wrong. A drone operator is not a pilot, and Gene Kranz is not an astronaut.

As I've said before in this forum, UAS control units should have an explosive charge in them that is activated in a crash. Especially if it is a collision with an aircraft or another person. Absent that reciprocal threat, the courts will have to step in.

Posted by: Chip Davis | March 8, 2017 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Jail? Probably excessive. Fine and restitution? More appropriate.

That said, we may not operate our aircraft over open air assemblies and the FAA has deemed even a small group of people on the beach a "congested area." So, if in fact drones are ruled as aircraft governable by the FAA, then the rules should apply although I don't want them above 1000 feet as 91.119 would require.

Most localities treat these as model aircraft, which they are. Most localities do not allow flying radio controlled model aircraft within the downtown area or over crowds. Just because they do not require the same amount of training to fly as a radio controlled airplane does not make them safer or less subject to the same regulations.

Posted by: BYRON WORK | March 8, 2017 12:39 PM    Report this comment

The scary part is the activist DA and worse the activist judge. But then too that is what happens when you live in a city or state that basically chooses to ignore some the law and make up others to their liking on the fly. If I happened to have a shot gun that discharged and injured someone, you can bet that I would be facing jail time. What about injuring someone with fireworks? Criminal stupidity aside (even the Peoples Republik of Konnecticut doesn't have that in the criminal code yet), incarceration is not the proper route here. The civil courts are intended to settle these matters and provide financial relief for the injured.

If a hapless pilot lands at KSMO 1/2 minute after the curfew will an activist city attorney and activist judge subject him/her to jail time? Of course we all know that everyone loves aviation and aviators so it will never happen. This is a very slippery slope and the power drunk self appointed guardians of society are greasing the path. Growing up in a rough Massachusetts city, we all learned that if someone in power or with enough $ (sort of go together) wanted to "get" you they would by using the power of the government.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | March 8, 2017 1:13 PM    Report this comment

A great question and not an easy one to contemplate. What bothers me is that the drone pilots are not subject to any required training or licensing requirements that would teach them some flying knowledge and judgement, or at least expose them to someone with these skills, about when and where it is appropriate to launch and fly a drone. Even though the box the drone comes in, or the instructions inside, might have warnings or advice (do they?) regarding appropriate flying conditions and the safety of other people there is no reasonable expectation that the purchaser will follow them.

We licensed pilots, in our aircraft, reach the scene of an accident first and potentially pay the ultimate price. Drone pilots are not placing themselves in such danger and are not necessarily thinking about things like turbulence and radio interference or whatever could go wrong or wo might get hurt if they fly their craft in unsafe conditions or over other people. A drone has no intelligence to steer its crippled self to try to avoid endangering other people.

Posted by: Craig Davis | March 8, 2017 3:02 PM    Report this comment

"What bothers me is that the drone pilots are not subject to any required training or licensing requirements that would teach them some flying knowledge and judgement, or at least expose them to someone with these skills, about when and where it is appropriate to launch and fly a drone."

Technically speaking, I can't think of anything that requires us "real" pilots from requiring training either. Is there anything that would prevent me from buying a car and an airplane without having an appropriate license? You may "lose" the ability to do so legally if caught, but that would just bring you back to where you started.

Now, it is true that in a real airplane, you are physically on the line if you make a serious mistake where as that's not the case with a drone, but that also applies to model aircraft too. And they have been coexisting just fine.

The real trick may be in creating something like the AMA but for owners/pilots of drones, and have a very low barrier to entry. Building a culture of responsible flying will be far more effective than any punitive threats (the instructors here should recognize that concept - carrots are much more effective than sticks).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 8, 2017 3:48 PM    Report this comment

Larry, I believe you have it somewhat right. Yes, pilots on this forum are not really endeared to drones. That being said, given what has happened to this drone pilot, one has to look over ones shoulder with hesitation thinking, "is this where the future is going and how exposed am I or will I be."
Everyone knows pilots are rich, evil people. What better way to get rid of them, their planes, noise etc. than through judicial and political activism unplugged. All you have to do is turn on the news to see where we are already headed. As pilots, we are not exempt from this very strong trend. I believe everyone here knows this, does not want to be swept up with it, but, is not really sure how to avoid the on coming tidal wave, hence, the initial pause and silence. Well founded in my opinion.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 8, 2017 3:54 PM    Report this comment

Open season on drones? Watch pissed off woman targeting a disrespecting fly by.

nypost.com/2017/03/06/watch-this-woman-pull-gun-on-drone-hovering-over-her-home/

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2017 4:40 PM    Report this comment

As a pilot I find this excessive. While the guy could possibly be given a fine (the choice I made, just in case there was an ordinance) the rest should've been purely civil.

I don't like drones near airports, in particular airport approaches / departures, there was no malicious intent here. Everyone involved seems to agree, but this poor sucker is jailed? What for? It's ridiculous. He didn't target this woman for injury, he wasn't drunk as far as I know, and given the fact he was trying to view/record the parade it's unlikely he stunt flying in a confined area. Would they have jailed someone who knocked a plastic potted plant off a ledge?

I view this whole scenario as poor form by the judge and prosecutor. Pandering, if you will, of the worst sort.

Posted by: Joe Servov | March 8, 2017 10:01 PM    Report this comment

The judge and prosecutor have made the point. Protect the citizenry. Dude gets 30 days!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2017 10:46 PM    Report this comment

"a city or state that basically chooses to ignore some the law and make up others to their liking on the fly."

Welcome to Seattle. No doubt the most off-the-charts liberal city in America. It used to be a great city. These days, it's a mess.

Posted by: Ken Keen | March 9, 2017 7:34 AM    Report this comment

I am quite troubled at the direction the drone industry as a whole and commercial drones are going in particular with the lack of safety.

Comparing manned and unmanned platforms is oranges and apples when it comes to safety. Drones are consumer grade electronic products with mean time between failure of about critical malfunction every 10,000 hours. In traditional aviation this high risk platform is unheard of.

I think that just like every car is packed with an airbag for risk mitigation (and most of that risk comes from the driver just like drone pilots are the main risk factor in drones) than every drone should be equipped with a mandatory impact reduction system like a parachute.

I saw this article on a company called Parazero with a product called Safeair that does just that and I hope it becomes an essential part of every drone. This would benefit both the pilots and the people underneath, not to mention some peace and quiet for regulators.

Posted by: Jerry H McDonald | March 9, 2017 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Yesterday, a fairly large bird (species unknown, but of light coloration) impacted the picture window on the south side of my house. BIG thud; plenty of blood; but no broken glass. Daylight IMC conditions at the time, with light rain. If the bird was equipped with a parachute, it failed to be deployed. The local vermin cleared the scene of the crash, but failed to wash the window.

Parazero has an interesting web site. I'd be interested in learning more about their deployment-decision-making system. At first glance, it would seem that the ability to command zero-thrust would be a requirement for a successful descent under canopy...

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | March 9, 2017 12:31 PM    Report this comment

"Is there anything that would prevent me from buying a car and an airplane without having an appropriate license? "

What percentage of traffic accidents are caused by licensed drivers vs. accidents caused by unlicensed drivers?

Posted by: Robert Ore | March 9, 2017 7:56 PM    Report this comment

"What bothers me is that the drone pilots are not subject to any required training or licensing requirements that would teach them some flying knowledge and judgement, or at least expose them to someone with these skills, about when and where it is appropriate to launch and fly a drone."

Actually, drones are covered under 14CFR107-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Part 107 will look familiar to anyone with a pilot certificate. Operating under 107 requires a "remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating", which requires passing an aeronautical knowledge test that covers the above areas. (No practical test, though.) Part 107 includes a number of operating restrictions including flying "over a human being". It also requires that the pilot "assess the operating environment, considering risks to persons and property." Accidents must be reported to the FAA if they cause "serious injury" or "loss of consciousness" or $500 property damage.

The drone pilot in this case must have been registered under Part 107 and apparently violated several of its provisions.

The FAA does grant exemptions for flying for "fun or recreation" , meaning "refreshment of strength and spirits after work", so long as you follow "community-based" (AMA) guidelines, including not flying over people or near airports or crowds.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | March 9, 2017 10:09 PM    Report this comment

"The drone pilot in this case must have been registered under Part 107 and apparently violated several of its provisions. "

As mentioned above, this incident occurred before 107 was in place. He was operating under AMA.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 10, 2017 3:54 AM    Report this comment

I'm really surprised we don't have more reports of drones going bad. I read this week that 1.2 million UAVs were sold in 2016.

GA aircraft seem to average about 20 incidents per week with a much smaller quantity of aircraft.

While there is no locus to collect drone incidents, a similar incident rate with the number of UAVs is certainly not jumping out of the news.

As said above, be careful what you wish for. It is possible the UAV safety record is X times better than GA.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | March 10, 2017 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Paul, there are issues with GPS in cities due buildings blocking the line of sight signals. Although most drones can compensate, I would never operate a drone in a city. Much too risky. Cell phone carriers have been trying to rectify this without much success. I see this problem all time in Chicago, Boston and NYC with various GPS units.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | March 10, 2017 11:51 AM    Report this comment

"(T)his incident occurred before 107 was in place. He was operating under AMA."

In which case he violated quite a few AMA safety rules regarding flying over people and experience level. That makes it careless and reckless at the very least.

This is not a "flower pot on the windowsill" accident, this is "permit-less installation of an air conditioner without protection of the sidewalk traffic" predictable. There being no federal statute to protect innocent bystanders at that time, it's appropriate that the local jurisdiction handled the case. A gypsy contractor with a criminal record whose hammer slipped and struck a pedestrian would have gotten similar treatment. The line between "careless and reckless" and "depraved indifference" is up to the prosecutor (and ultimately the judge or jury) to determine.

That's exactly what the posters from Seattle and Konnecticutt would want, I hope. Holding the responsible party accountable for injury does not make the officers of the court "activist". It's the job we give them.

So here's what we have: Bertorelli took a case which was adjudicated in a local court because there was no federal statute, made a false-equivalency argument applying it to aircraft pilots, throws up the straw-man "aircraft killed people when they were new too" (ignoring the difference in sheer numbers and public risk), and closes with his opinion (after admitting that he "can't tell if Skinner acted negligently") that he doesn't think justice was done.

For the record:
Drone operators are not "airmen of another stripe" any more than a kite-flyer is a "sailplane pilot of another stripe". How can you tell? If the kite is destroyed, the guy holding the string is not in danger.

Drone operations pose a potential threat to humans on the ground and in the air. When conducted under AMA rules (safety lines, altitude limits, experience qualifications, crowd protection, etc.) they have an admirable safety record. Flying through downtown taping a parade ain't nowhere close.

Not your best work, Paul. If you want a controversial topic, why not tackle the privacy implications of ADS-B/out transmitting your N-number for every kid (or competitor) to track on their phone? Even FAA-level ASDI blocking won't stop that.

Posted by: Chip Davis | March 10, 2017 12:09 PM    Report this comment

"Drone operations pose a potential threat to humans on the ground and in the air."

ALL aircraft operations pose a threat to people on the ground in the air, or are you reasoning that somehow, trained and FAA-certifed pilots are immune? Just since the first of the year, three people died in a crash that burned houses in California, an EAB crashed through a condo roof on Feb 28 and a King Air went through the roof of a shopping mall in Australia.

This stuff happens weekly. A handful of people on the ground are killed every year. And guess what? The pilots have "skin in the game," have been trained, are insured and presumably are recurrent. Yet they still kill themselves and other uninvolved bystanders. Do we need more regulations to prevent this? Or should the pilots be jailed according to local laws?

The FAA estimates a million drones were sold during the past year alone, bringing the total population to well over 1.5 million or possibly closer to two million. That's probably 10 times the number of active GA airplanes in the U.S. Guess how many drone-related fatals there were? Zip.

The law of averages will eventually catch up and someone will die in a drone-related incident. Even then, it will be a fraction of the deaths that happen in GA airplanes in just one week. We can hope an airliner isn't brought down. But I don't have a solution to avoiding that and I haven't seen one from anyone else, either.

So when I see risk assessment based on hysteria and hyperventilation rather than, you know, actual data, I'm going to point it out. I think you might be suggesting otherwise and that's not the best reasoning.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 10, 2017 2:15 PM    Report this comment

Paul, pilots are the minority of the population. Non pilots, the ordinary citizens, are the majority and way more powerful than the exceptional citizen.

Then there is a majority of pilots (exceptional citizens) agreeing with non pilots to protect uninvolved bystanders from additional unpleasant happenings. Privacy intrusions, minor injuries or getting whacked unconscious by UAVs is serious stuff and cause civil concern nearing phobiatic proportions. I can understand why the unpleasant happenings can cause hysterical and hyperventilating induced reactions. I agree, the judge got it right.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 11, 2017 2:09 AM    Report this comment

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