We got a call from a client after doing our regular site flights that morning. “Uh, there are three federal agents here who want to talk with you…”
We have a construction client for whom we have worked for over two years on the same site. The site is very close to the approach path of a major airport in the DC area. We have clearance from the FAA and local air traffic control to fly this site when we need to. We call ATC before and after we fly. We have millions of dollars of liability insurance, not just for our flight ops, but also to cover our simple presence at the site. We fly in conformance with all Part 107 regulations. We have our Part 107 certificates.
Though we feel we give excellent value for what we charge, and our customer agrees, our prices for site work like this are not the lowest ones in the market. An illegal drone pilot could charge less than we do and make a profit. But what would he or she do when the Feds come calling?
As it turned out, a commercial pilot driving by the construction site saw our drone and called ATC, believing it was an illegal and unsafe flight. Apparently, there had been a shift change at ATC between when we had called in to start the op, and when the pilot called the tower. ATC did not connect the pilot report of a drone with our authorized operation, and someone hit the panic button. A call went out to all pilots in the area to be on the lookout for drone activity near one of the main runways. We actually heard the notification to pilots on our scanner, which we always use when operating near airports. “Hm. I wonder what bozo is flying his drone too close to the runway?”
Our client handed the phone over to a federal air marshal, and we had a nice, calm chat about our legal and safe operation. I gave him my airman certificate number, I gave him our COA number; we talked about how we had called ATC according to the terms of the COA; I voluntarily gave him our flight logs. We ended up having an interesting conversation about the problems they had been having with illegal drone ops near the airport, and he confirmed some suspicions we had that the airport had the capacity to track in real time drone activity nearby.
In the end, our client was impressed with the way we handled the incident. We hope they are never tempted to go with the lowest-price drone pilots for any future jobs. They just avoided a huge potential liability because we operate legally, with good insurance.
Jonathan Rupprecht, an expert in drone law issues, lays out five great reasons you don’t want to hire illegal drone pilots. Hire us instead.