The FAA vs. Trappy
October 17, 2013 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Raphael Pirker, a.k.a. Trappy, is a FPV pilot who came to be well known after the video from his New York flight went viral. While most of the media coverage of Trappy's NYC exploits was positive, the incident prompted a heated debate in the hobbyist community, and the authorities took a dim view of it. Shortly afterwards, Trappy was hired by a PR firm to do an aerial video shoot over the University of Virginia. The FAA, having banned commercial use of UAVs in 2007, took the unusual step of issuing a $10,000 fine for the unauthorized flight. Earlier this month Trappy's attorneys filed a response(pdf) to the FAA's action which questions whether the FAA holds jurisdiction over "model aircraft" in the first place. According to Wired Magazine, he court's decision could determine the future of model aviation and miniature UAVs in the US. Once again, the response from the hobbyist/entrepreneur community has been spirited.

An eyewitness account of what happened from IBCrazy at RCGroups.
posted by smoothvirus (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There needs to be a lot of regulations on drone use before we go forward. The skies are going to have a lot of these up there soon and getting it right the first time will be important.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:20 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

After that dude got decapitated by his own model aircraft (in this case a helicopter) I'd like to see some stiffer enforcement, probably in the forms of confiscation and even jail time.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:51 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

The skies are going to have a lot of these up there soon and getting it right the first time will be important.

Laws written before there's a big accident tend to be better than laws written afterwards.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:01 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

There needs to be a lot of regulations on drone use before we go forward.

Define "drone".
posted by indubitable at 2:02 PM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

When did "remote control aircraft" suddenly turn into EVIL EVIL DRONES?
posted by mrbill at 2:04 PM on October 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

I wrote this yesterday:
The legal situation regarding drones in the U.S. is a mess. Drone startups are blooming here, but they must either fly in other countries or live in fear of an FAA shutdown.

The FAA has grounded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drone Journalism Lab and the University of Missouri's Drone Journalism Program. It has put a stop to many attempts to use drones in search and rescue situations, and also stopped local police forces from flying drones. At the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo a few months ago, I even heard Ted Wierzbanowski (former Industry Co-Chair of the FAA’s Small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee) say that he thought if a farmer bought an RC plane and flew it over his land to collect aerial imagery to see how the crops were doing that it would not be legal under current FAA rules.

At the moment the only way for public agencies or companies to fly drones without getting in trouble with the FAA is to get a Certificate of Authorization or a Special Airworthiness Certificate (though if you look at this list of companies with certificates, it appears you have to be a defense contractor to get one). It will be a big step forward if the FAA really issues new guidelines in the next couple months, but I'm also nervous about the possibility of new rules that are even more restrictive than the ones we have now, especially for hobbyist activities.
Trappy's legal response points out the inconsistency of FAA enforcement: Real estate photographers, journalists and fire departments get letters from the FAA or worse, but film & TV use drones for filming all the time.

Supposedly the FAA will issue their new rules before Thanksgiving. It's been reported that the long delay resulted more from privacy concerns than safety issues.
posted by jjwiseman at 2:04 PM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

If it's under 2 pounds, can't reach 200 feet, and has plastic propellers, let it fly (except near airports). If it has any real danger of hurting people or other aircraft though you should need a license and liability insurance.
posted by miyabo at 2:07 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd be more comfortable with the argument for rules on drone use if they also eliminated their use by the government. Otherwise, it seems like the call to limit drone use has less to do with safety and more with keeping airspace open and unimpeded for local and federal law enforcement to do surveillance, as well as preserving profits for UAVs for military and paramilitary contractors that are going heavy into the drone market, contractors like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin that are major players in the lobbyist crowd.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:07 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

By the way, the amazing Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference was last weekend (deserving of a FPP on its own), and some of the talks are up.

Some relevant videos: posted by jjwiseman at 2:10 PM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

If it's under 2 pounds, can't reach 200 feet

Generally I would think that if it can reach 10 feet then it can also reach 200 feet. You would probably need to add technology to the model plane to create that kind of arbitrary limitation. And since under most circumstances I'd really prefer that actual planes not fly as low as 200 feet, maybe there's space for a higher ceiling.
posted by anonymisc at 2:14 PM on October 17, 2013

The CAA - the UK's version of the FAA - issued rules on exactly this issue at the beginning of 2010. They seem sensible enough (read - I can fly my Parrot pretty much as I can any RC aircraft, providing I'm not charging for the results), and don't seem to have caused any problems. Was rather chuffed when they grounded the Merseyside Police drone for not following the rules immediately afterwards, and you can't help but feel they had a point.

The FAA is rather known for wanting to do things its own way rather than adopting recommendations from other regulators, even when it might seem sensible to move quickly and the end result is pretty indistinguishable.
posted by Devonian at 2:15 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

... journalists and fire departments get letters from the FAA or worse, but film & TV use drones for filming all the time.

That's Hollywood Immunity.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:17 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love hobbyists. While I am not an RC plane hobbyist, I love that these guys and gals aren't backing down on the issue.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:24 PM on October 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some of the RC hobbyists are great, but there are also plenty of reactionary, xenophobic jerks, with lots of misguided attempts to police other people's activities (not that everyone who expresses safety concerns is being reactionary). Discussions on aren't quite as bad as Youtube comments, but they're not always that much better--as you can see in the "dim view" link from the FPP. I've been glad to see new communities spring up, like nodecopter, with new blood--I think the culture of open source drone communities has actually inhibited the technological development.
posted by jjwiseman at 3:36 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seems like this would be a ton of fun with an Oculus Rift - flying or watching. Doing the magic-eye on this is cool!
posted by Drexen at 4:11 PM on October 17, 2013

Fantastic post, smoothvirus, thanks. I had no idea any of this was going on and have a much better grasp on at least the questions now. Really appreciate you taking the time to put this together on the front page.
posted by mediareport at 4:39 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

When did "remote control aircraft" suddenly turn into EVIL EVIL DRONES?

I would love to see this tracked to it's source.

At some point it made the jump from "big military planes with rocket launchers in Afghanistan" to OMG THE POLICE DEPARTMENTS WANT TO USE THEM ORWELL 1984 BOOT ON FACE FOREVER FUTURE.

It was a bit bizarre seeing a bunch of people i know who would generally by default find this kind of tech cool suddenly jumping up and becoming quite obstinately against them as soon as the cops wanted to use them without any particularly good reason.

I also feel that the fox news crowd had a good run slagging on them in general and painting them as evil, but that's just how it is in my memory.

It is weird though, yea.
posted by emptythought at 5:51 PM on October 17, 2013

as soon as the cops wanted to use them without any particularly good reason.

The fact that the cops want to use them is a pretty good reason in itself.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:52 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The whole thing is a rotten mess is what it is. The relevant government agencies do not seem to understand hobbyists, viewing us as potential remote controlled terrorist bombers (they can be used for search and rescue where helicopters can't [or are too expensive to use], and yet in the recent Colorado floods FEMA grounded the multirotors helping the relief efforts). The mainstream media describes R/C aircraft as drones, with all the rotten connotations involved. Every day some guy with no sense but lots of money buys a DJI phantom and a GoPro Hero 3+ and, with no flight experience, tries to set up a business taking aerial photographs for real estate agents (manufacturers feed into this fantasy by advertising their vehicles as being easy to fly).

Trappy runs Team Black Sheep (TBS as it's known) and is generally regarded in the community as a bit of a dick. There are genuine safety concerns with what he's doing but he brushes them off as unimportant. For example, check out the following exchange from this video:
  • Thomas Blakeney 4 weeks ago These videos show no respect for bystander safety. Flying over densely populated urban areas is simply unwise and unsafe.
  • Team BlackSheep 4 weeks ago yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
  • Thomas Blakeney 4 weeks ago I am not the only one with that opinion, by far. Look at what happened after you goes low and recklessly over the campus of UNV. The city immediately outlawed R/C in the city limits. No big deal to you, since you don't live there. And flying into the parasailer in this video was extremely stupid and reckless.
  • Team BlackSheep 4 weeks ago Interested in a discussion I am not. More important my time is.
See for yourself. Here he is flying near buildings in downtown Bangkok. Here he is flying a multi-rotor in Paris, landing on vehicles. Here he is flying in Singapore, skimming buildings. I can tell you from first-hand experience that Singapore has one of the more restrictive airspace laws around, and they're there for a reason: the island is small and they need to be careful about civilian and military planes which take low landing paths over residential and industrial areas. People get arrested for flying where he did, and every R/C hobbyist has to lie low whenever something like this comes to the authorities' attention.

Cool footage? Absolutely - I would say it's not just cool, it's bloody fantastic. But if he hurts someone, or makes the relevant authorities clamp down on what they feel is an unauthorized invasion of controlled airspace, he's not going to stick around to bear the consequences.

(Incidentally, Bruce Simpson [Youtube user name xjet, from a video linked in the OP's post, generally taking Trappy's side] is himself knowledgeable but eccentric and prone to hyperbole, the result of which has garnered him some notoriety in the R/C world. I would take his comments with a healthy dose of salt.)
posted by theony at 8:41 PM on October 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Shout-out to the UTS driver of the SHS or Green Line bus dropping off passengers at the Claude Moore Medical Education Building!
posted by kuanes at 5:32 AM on October 18, 2013

Can't be SHS or the Green Line; it's on the wrong side of the street. Used to be the Blue Line but I have no idea what y'all call that now. Outer loop?

Seriously, this guy films at U.Va. and spends the vast majority of his time flying through the freakin' hospital? One shot of the lawn? No time at all checking out the rest of Inner Grounds? He deserves a $10K fine for lack of imagination.

Also for flying over the medevac landing pad. But mostly for the lack of imagination.
posted by thecaddy at 9:41 AM on October 18, 2013

as soon as the cops wanted to use them without any particularly good reason.

The fact that the cops want to use them is a pretty good reason in itself.

They already used them during that manhunt against Dorner.
posted by gucci mane at 6:24 PM on October 18, 2013

"David Zablidowsky of Brooklyn has been charged with 'Reckless Endangerment' for allegedly losing control of a helicopter drone at 'an unreasonable height creating a substantial risk of serious physical injury'." NYPD charged the guy who flew his drone off a balcony, bounced it off buildings and ended up crashing it.

They already used them during that manhunt against Dorner.

That may not be true. U.S. Customs and Border patrol denied that they loaned any drones out for that, and LAPD doesn't have a COA to fly drones.

However, USCBP has been loaning their Predators out to other federal, state & local agencies a lot: More than 250 times in 2012. They have refused to release the names of most of the agencies, but we know it includes FBI, DEA and US Marshals, Grand Forks SWAT, the North Dakota Narcotics Task Force, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Minnesota Drug Task Force, and several branches of the military and several county sheriff’s departments.

So whether or not they used them to track Dorner, they've been using them all over the place. And these are Predators, not little quadrotors--though the police want those, too.
posted by jjwiseman at 7:07 PM on October 18, 2013

Federal Government Clashes with Commercial Drone Industry - from
posted by smoothvirus at 7:32 PM on October 18, 2013

Mesa County is the only law enforcement agency in Colorado and one of only two in the country actively using these devices — with the blessing of the Federal Aviation Administration — to aid in search and rescues, to help reconstruct crime scenes and apprehend suspects, to investigate deadly accidents, and to get a helpful bird's-eye view of fires.

Aerial photographs taken from the drones have thus far been submitted as evidence in three homicide cases. The department chalked up a first recently when it received FAA permission to create a crime-scene video that was accepted as evidence in a jury trial in a neighboring county.
posted by jjwiseman at 8:56 AM on October 20, 2013

Heard a great podcast from the Flite Test guys with Trappy today. Very informative and thought provoking for those of us in the FPV hobby. Although those not in the hobby may find some of the tech talk a bit boring, Trappy does divulge a lot about his past and his current motivations.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:55 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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