Matthew Deery was in his car when he saw the shot that could open a Steven Spielberg movie. He had his drone packed away in the trunk of his car and pulled over near the St. Paul Cathedral. He sent the quadcopter up to capture magnificent video of the building at sunset. Deery posted it to YouTube and viewers can see the drone high above the 306-foot building.
"I was close to 400 feet, but staying below it," said Deery, a Woodbury, Minn. resident.
Four hundred feet and above marks the Federal Aviation Administration's "no-fly zone" for drones. It's simply a safety issue -- they don't want these machines smashing into other aircraft or dropping out of the sky on to people.
How long does it take to get FAA approval?
Deery made his video for fun, but if people want to make money taking pictures with a drone, they need to get approval from the FAA first. How seriously are the feds enforcing the rules here in Minnesota? The Fox 9 Investigators filed a Freedom of Information request to find out. It took a year, and multiple reminders from Fox 9, before the agency turned over some two hundred pages of documents. Fox 9 anticipated the records would reveal investigations of near misses between drones and passenger planes or reports of peeping drones lurking in residential neighborhoods.
Instead, most of what we found were cases where the agency contacted groups or individuals it suspected of flying drones for commercial purposes and warned them to stop.
'People have been injured, even killed'
Adam Johnson from St. Paul's Convention and Visitors Bureau said staff in his office were surprised to get a letter from the FAA. They hired a production company to make a slick promotional video of the city and that company used a drone to get aerial shots.
Someone saw the video on YouTube and alerted an FAA safety investigator.
He fired off a letter reminding Visit St. Paul, which read, in part, "[...] there are rules for flying drones commercially and that people have been injured, even killed in accidents."
"It wasn't us, but it was ultimately our responsibility," said Johnson, Vice President of Marketing and Media Relations for Visit St. Paul. "We are not here looking to get into a battle with the FAA."
Dwight Gunnarson was a pioneer in the world of unmanned aircraft. Back in 2004 he rigged up this remote controlled helicopter to carry a camera which he used to take pictures of real estate. One day, out of the blue he got a phone call from the FAA in 2013.
"At this point in time you are officially grounded and you are no longer able to do aerial photography," Gunnarson recalled the man on the other end of the phone telling him. Someone had tipped off the FAA to an old website of Gunnarson's that promoted his remote controlled chopper was available for hire.
"I said, 'Well, I'm really not doing anything now, but yes, I will cease all activities and that is where it ended,'" he remembered.
Below are a list of the YouTube videos in the story. Check out the full-length versions: