FAA records show problems posed by private drones

By Mike Kaszuba

New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records show that privately-owned drones have caused headaches for federal officials: flying close to airliners taking off and landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, buzzing the IDS Building in downtown Minneapolis, and forcing a medical helicopter to delay a takeoff at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

FAA records obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a Saint Paul non-profit, show that in April of 2016 state police recovered a drone that had landed on the Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.  A month later, in a separate incident, a drone flew a hundred feet above a military Blackhawk helicopter in Saint Paul.

In February of this year, the FAA received a report of a drone “almost hitting an aircraft on the ramp” at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie.  Officials said the “aircraft was running and being marshaled out of the ramp area” when the drone “almost hit the aircraft and struck the pavement, breaking the rotor blades.”  FAA documents indicate that police tracked down the owner after viewing the drone’s video card and identifying the home where the drone was launched from.

However, in many of the cases reviewed by PRM, local, state and federal officials were unable to find the unauthorized drones or their owners after being notified of problems.

Four years of drone reports

The FAA files outline 276 separate drone incidents over a four-year period beginning in January of 2013.  In general, the records show how pervasive the use of privately-owned drones has become in Minnesota.  The records also offer a glimpse into how government officials have attempted to track the use of drones, and likewise detail how many private drone operators – including hobbyists – are unfamiliar with the regulations that govern drone operation.

In some cases, the reports document the actions of inexperienced operators who purchase state-of-the-art drones.  For example, in a February 2016 entry, a private operator told the FAA that he was registering a new drone with the agency because his previous device “had flown away and he had no idea as to where it went.”

Fed, state rules for drone operation

The FAA documents augment separate records that PRM obtained earlier this year from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which also has jurisdiction over the use of drones.  Those records showed that state transportation officials have issued cease and desist orders and other warnings regarding unauthorized drone flights to a variety of commercial users, ranging from Xcel Energy to Edina Realty.

In a February letter from the FAA’s flight standards district office in Minneapolis, federal officials clarified the difference between using a drone for commercial purposes, and flying one as a hobby.  Officials also noted that all drones, regardless of use, must be registered with the federal agency.

The FAA letter added that “while flying model aircraft for hobby or recreational purposes does not require FAA approval, all model aircraft operators must operate safely and in accordance with the law.”

FAA regulations note that hobby drones must be registered by a person who is at least 13 years old, and the drone must be registered if it weighs more than 0.55 pounds.  Hobby drones are not permitted to fly higher than 400 feet, must be kept within sight of the operator, and cannot be flown over stadiums, groups of people, or “emergency response efforts” such as fire fighting operations.  In addition, drones cannot be flown near airports or aircraft.

However, the documents obtained by PRM reveal many instances where private drone users violated the agency’s guidelines.

Drones entering restricted airspace

In August of 2015, authorities rushed to find the operator of a drone that passed within 50 feet of a commercial airliner that was on its five-mile final approach to Runway 30L at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  Police and the FBI were notified, but FAA records indicate that the drone’s operator was not found.

Two months later, the FAA investigated a drone passing over an aircraft at 4,500 feet.  Officials said the drone could not be seen on radar.  “Pilot stated he was climbing out at approximately 150 knots and did not note direction of flight [of the drone] nor if it was descending or ascending,” a federal report stated.  The pilot indicated that he did not have to take evasive action, and police said they could not find the drone’s operator.

In a December 2016 incident, a drone caused an Endeavor Air flight to delay a turn as it departed from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport one afternoon.

The black drone was first sighted by the plane’s crew at 12,000 feet.  “It was necessary for the crew to delay executing a turn in order to avoid a possible conflict” with the drone,” the report stated.  “After the crew delayed its turn, [the drone] moved out of sight.”

Drones near emergency personnel, restricted areas

A medical helicopter likewise had to delay a departure at the Hennepin County Medical Center because of a drone, according to FAA records.

In that instance, which occurred in May of 2016, the helicopter pilot noted that a drone “was operating just to the west of the helipad that he was on,” according to the FAA report.  “He stated it was operating [at] about the height of the tallest buildings in the area and he delayed his departure until [the drone] left the area.”  Police could not locate the drone nor its operator, the reported added.

That same month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told the FAA that a drone was reportedly taking photographs while the DNR was trying to put out a fire by air near Embarrass, MN.  DNR officials found pictures taken by the drone on a Facebook page, and contacted the page’s owner.  The owner of the Facebook page said he had obtained the photos from “someone else”, whom they declined to identify, according to the report.

Other records described drones flying over sensitive facilities.  In August 2015, according to another entry, a St. Paul Park refinery employee contacted the FAA to report that a three-foot-wide drone was flying over the facility but that employees could not track down its operator.

Small drones difficult to detect by radar

One report from January of last year showed how drones can be difficult to detect by radar – even when they are seen by the naked eye.

According to the FAA report, Flying Cloud airport officials stated that they could see a drone visually “but not on their radar” as it was also spotted by a nearby plane.   The incident, which took place in the early evening hours, occurred when an aircraft reported seeing a drone at 1,400 feet as it entered its one-mile final approach to Runway 28R.

In another instance, airport tower officials could not determine whether an object was a drone or a balloon – even after a pilot reported what “looked like a drone” off of the right side of their aircraft as the plane departed from the runway at Saint Paul’s Holman Field in October of 2015.

Drones in downtown Minneapolis

Other FAA records meanwhile chronicled private drones flying among the tallest buildings in downtown Minneapolis.

In a report from November of 2016, a private operator acknowledged to investigators that his drone had made an “unscheduled landing” atop an unnamed 56-story building in downtown Minneapolis.  The operator said that he had “acquired some knowledge of the regulations” governing drones.  The report also stated that the operator would be provided with an educational letter on drone usage.

A similar incident occurred last September when an unidentified individual told federal officials of seeing a “very large quad copter drone” that was “climbing all the way up to the top of the IDS building.”  According to the report, the drone had a “very large high end camera.”  The report stated that the incident was eventually closed because officials were “unable to identify [the] alleged operator.”

The federal records indicate that officials have also been concerned with drones operating near US Bank Stadium, the new downtown Minneapolis home of the Minnesota Vikings football team.

According to one FAA entry, federal officials met with stadium personnel and the FBI seven months prior to the stadium’s opening to discuss “security concerns” involving drones.  The report did not provide further details.

FAA monitoring drone use by hobbyists, commercial users

The reports also provided evidence of how the FAA has been proactive in monitoring drone use by hobbyists.

One report from February of 2016 indicated that an official had watched for drone activity in Duluth during “Hockey Day Minnesota” – an event aimed at promoting hockey.  According to the report, the exercise had an official “specifically looking for unauthorized UAS [Unmanned Aerial System] operations.”   The report added that the official at the event “observed [a person] and 3 friends” flying a drone, and then approached the group to inquire about their operations.  The report noted that the drone operator was apparently trying to take pictures to place on a Twitter account.  The official then noted that he, “gave him information [on] UAS operations and handed him UAS informational letter,” the entry added.

In January of 2014, federal officials also responded after learning through a local news report that a company was testing the use of drones to deliver products to ice fishing houses on Lake Waconia.  FAA records noted that the government “regional UAS operations specialist” was alerted.

Reports of harassment via drones

In at least one episode, the FAA dealt with a drone that was reportedly harassing a family in St. Cloud.  The incident occurred last October, and a federal report noted that a woman’s family “was watching a movie in their home and a drone showed up outside their window.  She stated that the red light near the camera was flashing so she was sure it was recording.”  Police said they could not find the drone’s operator, although the woman said she suspected it was operated by a neighbor.

The FAA reports also contain miscellaneous complaints from the public.  In February of 2016, a man told officials that drones were “flying low over his house” – and that there were at least 30 of them.  The man stated that the “aircraft were there to survey him.  He believed them to be from the National Security Agency,” the report added.

Individual names redacted by FAA

In many instances, the FAA redacted the names of individuals and companies involved in specific drone incidents, citing federal privacy regulations and stating that “a balancing between the rights of the individual concerned and any public interest in disclosure must be performed.”  The ruling has been appealed by Public Record Media.