Casey Neistat: A Symptom of a Drone Problem

Casey Neistat! Do I have your attention yet? Recently an article (linked here) came out with a summary of info from a FOIA request into the investigation of Casey’s drone flying in New York. To put it lightly, it really stirred up the drone community. Nothing gets certified remote pilots fired up like watching one of his videos where he flies his drones, but I think everyone should take a step back and look at this from a little different perspective. Let me say outright - I do NOT condone illegal drone flying in any manner, but I do think people need to be directing anger at the right place. 

There are 2 arguments made about Casey’s drone flights that people want the FAA to address: he’s making money, and flying in controlled airspace without permission. I will start by discussing these, but then I want to move into what I feel is the true issue at hand.

The first issue surrounding Casey that people bring up is that he is flying commercially since he makes money off his YouTube videos. Personally I don’t think that argument is as cut and dry as people want to make it. Anyone who has watched Casey in interviews and videos outside of his own channel will understand that Casey really “vlogs” for personal enjoyment. I don’t know how his financial/tax situation is setup with his monetization on his channel, but the FAA clearly states that a hobbyist is someone flying for fun, and a commercial operator is flying to further a business. When you think about it, if Casey is vlogging for enjoyment and fun, then how is he operating commercially? Consider that what he is doing is no different than flying a drone to capture some awesome photos of a city, posting them on social media, and having a TV station or newspaper contact you to offer you money for them. Casey makes his videos (with some drone footage in them) for his own fun and enjoyment and posts it to social media. He is not a business or brand, and while you can clearly tell that all of his videos are making money for him, that’s doesn’t make it his intent. Your response is - well he clearly knows what he doing and that he’s going to profit. Intent can very hard to prove. Please don’t consider this a defense of Casey, but rather a realistic look at this argument that is made by so many people. (Edit on 7/2/17: The way this relates to the rest of the article might not be clear. There is potentially some grey are here due to the antiquated and out of date policies of the FAA. Due to the modern age of the internet, a lot of things that are seemingly cut and dry to someone due to their personal views might not be as cut and dry in a legal situation. The argument above is simply and example and view of how this could be grey. My personal opinion is that Casey should be flying under Part 107, but this is meant to give a perspective). 

When you consider the above, Casey is really only flying as a hobbyist under Part 101 and only needs to notify any airports within 5 miles of him. I have no idea whether he does or has done that, but as a hobbyist thats your main requirement. That being said, the FAA did start an investigation into Casey about his flight in controlled airspace, and basically concluded that there was a lack of evidence. The way the FAA policies currently stand you need more evidence that just a social media or website post to go after someone. A lot of people want to compare this to the SkyPan case and ask why the FAA didn’t go harder at Casey, but how could they? There are no customers, contracts, records, etc. to subpouna and lean upon as evidence. There might be footage in Casey’s archive that would show him at the controls - but there might not be.  Since the FAA apparently isn’t real big on electronic evidence, their view is that there just isn’t that hard factual item that shows that Casey was at the controls of a drone that was flying illegally in controlled airspace. 

My point with the above is not to get into a huge argument over Casey Neistat or even to defend him and his actions. Instead, I just want offer a thought process that leads us to what truly seems to be the issue and heart of the matter not just with Casey, but with drones in general - The Federal Aviation Administration. The dinosaur of an institution that is having a hard time evolving with current technology. After focusing really hard on manned aviation for decades, then just can’t seem to keep up or get ahead on drones. 

From the time drones started to really come into public light, the FAA has struggled on how to even fit them into their existing frame work of regulations. Then add to that the US governments slow and arduous rule making system that has made slow progress of getting any significant regulations put into effect. Even once we had Part 107 the FAA had an “O crap” moment when they realize they had no effective way to grant all the authorizations there were about to be inundated with. But at least 10 months in we finally have a better authorization sys — wait. No we still have a slow and broken system, and the replacement (LAANC) will likely not be working fully until Summer 2018. 

There is also the FAA’s completely underwhelming educational effort on safety and rules with drones. They have held the occasional campaign to keep people from flying near the Super Bowl, but as a whole there has been very little effort to truly educate the public on the rules surrounding drones, the places they can and cannot be flown, and what to do if someone is truly doing something reckless with a drone. As a result, people view drones the same as buying any other camera or toy. Just buy it at the local big box, throw it into the air and start snapping away - not big deal! But sadly it is a big deal. While privacy issues are totally overblown, issues surrounding safety of other aircraft in the air, and people on the ground below are not overblown. Just as manned aviation has had a culture of safety and making good choices, the same is necessary for drones. This will never happen if there is no true method in place to educate the public. Some people will still do whatever they want, but then you eliminate the issue of people buying a drone and being completely ignorant about what they should and should not do. 

The last issue surrounding the FAA is enforcement. Currently in the US, there have not been any proven, serious collisions with a drone and a manned aircraft, and no one has been killed by a drone. Based on that the FAA continues to place the vast majority of its focus and resources on manned aviation where crashes still occur and do kill people. But what good are rules and regulations if they are not enforced? And what good is it if you have antiquated policies that really won’t let you go after someone using only electronic evidence? Your probably NEVER going to get any other significant type of evidence about a drone flight that electronic. A drone pilot can takeoff, fly, land, and be gone in 30 min, so how often are you going to in person stumble on someone mid-flight for proof?

There are now twice as many registered drones as there are registered manned aircraft, and I’m sure the number of unregistered drones is significantly higher. At what point is the FAA going to stop being reactionary to drones in the airspace? Its time for them to develop a way to properly education the public about drones - and not in a way that makes people fearful. Its time for them to get new policies in place and figure out a method to actually enforce the regulations they created. And last, its time to speed up their internal process of creating new rules (like flight over people and beyond line of sight). 

Its time for the FAA to finally evolve into the 21st century. 


Post written by Jon Elliott, Owner MKE Drones, LLC