Why Drone Operators Shouldnt Be Jailed


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.