If a Drone Falls in Manhattan, Does Anyone Get in Trouble?

Tuesday afternoon, a UAV plummeted from the sky on the East side of Manhattan. This wasn’t a massive military drone, but a three-pound quadcopter that almost struck an unsuspecting businessman during rush hour, who removed the memory card from the downed drone and reported the incident to police. According to New York’s ABC 7, the man “called the police who took a look at the drone video, but did no further investigation because they said no law was broken.”

Could They Have Found the Perpetrator?

Even if the NYPD decided that the drone operator had broken a law, quadrocopters are not FAA certified, and therefore couldn’t be tracked unless through sales records, if the drones parts had ID numbers.

“It would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Nick Ernst, an engineering tech for Parallax, Inc., manufacturer of the ELEV-8 quadcopter. It doesn’t appear that the drone in question was one of Parallax’s, but if it were, it is possible Parallax could discern the owner based on sales records. But several distributors also sell the drone, which makes the situation much more difficult. “People who are responsible RCers will have a name and number on the device so they can be reached,” Ernst says, “but some hobbyists don’t think that far ahead.”

Is This a Crime?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations on mom-and-pop drones can be a little complex, the FAA says owners should fly UAVs no higher than 400-ft and a keep safe distance from heavily populated areas, such as, you know, Manhattan. There are a few ways to overcome the 400-ft flight restriction. Universities, police departments, and aerospace companies can apply for a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver. The number of these certificates issued has doubled in the last five years.
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