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Let's say someone has bought one of those quad copter camera UAVs and wasn't completely aware of FAA rules regarding airspace and where they can fly their drone, etc. Then let's say that they flew it into the airspace of a Class B airport by accident.1 What would happen?

I assume the airport, if they knew about it, would shut down the airspace until the drone had cleared (kind of like that recent fire.) But after that, what happens? Does the FAA have a way to figure out who was flying the drone? And even if they do figure it out, is their an FAA based penalty for flying into controlled airspace with an unauthorized drone?


1 Here's an example of a Class B airport, for anyone who isn't sure what that is: Lambert-St. Louis International. So, basically, a really big airport.


For those who seem to think this question is a dupe of "Is it legal to fly a Quadrocopter/Drone into an Airport? What will happen?": The only fragments that kind of deal with my question are as thus:

From dvnrrs regarding legal action:

Were you to actually fly it over the fence, you could be charged with trespassing. If you had any intent to cause harm, other charges might apply (up to attempted murder if you were trying to bring down an airliner).

From ratchet freak regarding what the airport might do:

When the tower sees unauthorized entry of a drone they will clear the airspace and send security to catch the guy controlling it.

Both of these comments lack detail, and that's probably because both of those snippets are from answers that were mostly dealing with the safety aspects of the question rather than with the legal aspects (eg., could a drone actually cause damage). I am after the legal aspect, and I am looking for more detail than "It's not legal, you may get charged" plus "they'll send security."

CGCampbell did start down that road by listing a statute that contains more detailed rules about what you can do, but it doesn't say what will happen if you don't follow said rules.

I want to know what laws the FAA will use to prosecute, how they will track down the perpertrator and, lastly, what evidence they will need to either fine or charge them with a crime.

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  • $\begingroup$ The FAA may not have a way but the NSA surely does - everybody who googles this question is a suspect. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Aug 13 '15 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DeerHunter Darn it, you caught us. This is really just a honey pot for would be accidental law breakers ;). $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Aug 13 '15 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife that question doesn't answer how they would find you, nor does it address what the FAA would do, rather it takes it from the Airport (property owner's) perspective and talks about trespassing. Not quite what I'm after. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Aug 13 '15 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ Seriously, did anyone actually read through the question and my reasoning before marking this as duplicate? $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Aug 14 '15 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about the US or the FAA but there is always the possibility to resort to old-fashioned police work. There were a string of cases of drones seen flying over nuclear power plants in France last year. The local aviation authority had no easy means to find out who was flying the drones but the police tried to follow some of the drones, lock the area, search cars, etc. They even arrested three people found with a drone in the vicinity of a power plan but I think they did not have enough to link them to previous flights and still haven't figured out exactly what was going on. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Aug 15 '15 at 9:03
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The answer is somewhat unclear, as there is limited (but emerging) case law and regulation on the subject and the outcome would depend heavily on the details of the airspace violation. However, there are some principles that we can use to shape our understanding:

The FAA has jurisdiction over anything flying, including UAS

This was most recently restated in the NTSB decision in FAA v. Pirker. Combine the definition in FAR 91.1: "Aircraft means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air" with the Applicability section in FAR 91.1(a):

...[T]his part prescribes rules governing the operation of aircraft (other than moored balloons, kites, unmanned rockets, and unmanned free balloons, which are governed by part 101 of this chapter, and ultralight vehicles operated in accordance with part 103 of this chapter) within the United States including the waters within 3 nautical miles of the U.S. coast.

We see then, that anything flying is regulated - either under part 91, 101, or 103. Since UAS are not regulated under part 101 or 103, they fall under Part 91. Finally, the FAA has authority to impose a civil penalty for violations of the FARs under 49 U.S. Code § 46301. Note that an FAA certificate is not necessary for the FAA to assess a civil penalty: in the Pirker case, the FAA assessed its penalty on a Swiss citizen who did not hold a FAA certificate.


Finding the operator of a UAS is difficult

Finding the operator of a UAS is much harder than finding the operator of a piloted aircraft. The FAA was able to find and assess a penalty to Raphael Pirker because he posted a video he made flying the UAS online. In most situations where UAS were where they shouldn't have been, the operators either were never found or turned themselves in:

Basically, if you're flying a UAS far enough away from yourself that a police officer can't see the remote in your hands, you're unlikely to be found if just your UAS is detected. UAS for personal use do not currently require registration or external markings. A recent research project proposes a tracking system - but would require "affixing radio-frequency detection tags to [UAS]."


Actual enforcement would vary

After all of that, what would happen if you did violate controlled or restricted airspace and were caught? This area is pretty fuzzy, and would depend strongly on a number of criteria, including severity and intent. The FAA's toolbox for airspace violations is broad, but is generally tuned toward certificated pilots. A certificated pilot who accidentally entered class B airspace might get anything from a slap on the wrist, to a required training session with an instructor, to a short-term suspension of their certificate, based on the situation: an overwhelmed or confused pilot would get more leeway than one who just wasn't paying attention or was reckless in their navigation.

Suspension and required training are not really in the FAA's toolbox for folks without a certificate, so you likely would expect some sort of monetary fine. The FAA is limited to $10,000 in its fines, so you could not be charged more than that, and could well see something less.


Prevention is the best cure

Some UAS manufacturers are building in safety restictions on their aircraft to prevent them from flying near airports (note that, at least in the linked situation, the restricted areas are less restrictive than B airspace, so would not necessarily keep you out of that airspace.)

The FAA is also working on a mobile app which should easily allow UAS operators to determine areas to avoid. This is relevant to the enforcement situation: if you enter airspace without clearance, but the app said it was OK, that would be a mitigating factor. More to the point, the app would provide information about the status of nearby airspace, allowing you to avoid violation, and the associated penalty, altogether.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the UAS causes an airport to be closed, even partially and for a short span of time, and it causes expenses (for example an airliner having to keep airborne for several extra minutes), the operator is likely to have to pay for the expenses incurred by the airline, the airport, and so, and that could amount a lot more than the FAA fine. I'm right? $\endgroup$ – Pere Jul 9 '18 at 8:19

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