FAA ‘Looking Into’ $10,000 Fine for Using Drone to Document Tornado Damage

In an effort to document the intense and widespread damage of the tornados that ripped through Arkansas this past week, storm chaser and videographer Brian Emfinger made use of a drone, flying it above the damage and rescue efforts to bring to light just how bad the damage was. Unfortunately for Emfinger, the Federal Aviation Administration may have an issue with his drone use.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is reporting that the FAA is indeed investigating the situation of Emfinger’s use of the drone (as well as other entities who made use of drones).

However, just as the video brought to life some controversy on the use of drones, the FAA’s investigation has also brought some controversy with it — specifically questions regarding the First Amendment and the agency’s ability to impose its rules over the right of freedom of press.


A screenshot from Emfinger’s video showing the widespread damage from the tornados that swept through much of Arkansas this past week.

The potential fine could be upwards of $10,000 if any of the storm chasers or journalists who covered the storm and damage using a drone are indeed fined, but the FAA is walking on some slippery slopes if it does intend to enforce the fines. Laywer Greg McNeal writes at Forbes that “many news organizations, lawyers […], and other drone enthusiasts would be united in opposition to the agency’s efforts to enforce non-existent rules.”

Drones are still in a legal limbo, where very few specific laws apply to drones and even more so, there’s no definite ruling on who is in charge of setting these rules. Should the FAA? Should it be dealt with as a federal law?


A screenshot from Emfinger’s video showing more detailed damage from the tornados that swept through much of Arkansas this past week.

As more and more cases like this arise, it’s becoming more and more apparent that at least something needs to be put in place in hopes to better regulate who can fly them and where they can be flown. In the meantime, we can expect more stories of lawsuits and legal battles regarding their use.

(via Forbes and RT)

  • Fullstop


  • Uncle Wig


  • beautox

    Land of the free, lol

  • beautox

    Land of the free, lol

  • Mike

    Land of the fee.

  • Robert Mark

    Freedom of the oppressed.

  • hdc77494

    The FAA needs to catch up with reality, and the point about enforcing non-existent rules is a good one. These are remote control model helicopters with cameras attached.

  • Douglas Clark

    How is a drone different from a RC modeler flying his helicopter? you don’t hear about the FAA “investigating” model RC aircraft of all types…

  • abcdef98765

    Do you all think that there should be absolutely no regulation on drones flying around? I would expect there should at least be things like maximum height they should fly at, maximum weight of the whole thing, protection of the blades, etc. These things can crash or hit something. It shouldn’t be a 10K fine for the fun of it, but let’s not pretend they’re completly benign

  • brianl74

    How it is any different than a kite? No one took issue with strapping a camera to a kite and filming. There are no limits with kites…

  • brianl74

    Excellent point. There are limits to the size of a launchable (BUT NOT HEIGHT FLOWN) rockets, however. But this is largely due to the FAA’s inability to find a way to distinguish between armed missiles and toy rockets…

  • abcdef98765

    there are FAA regulations on kites and baloons. The thing here is for the FAA to try to be reasonable and set reasonable rules that don’t needlessly limit legitimate use of safe drones.

  • abcdef98765

    according to wikipedia, the FAA does indeed have rules about RC’s…

  • Major Tom

    There should be some sort of licensing program for drones or any flying machines over a certain level of capability. Nothing too onerous, but enough to be sure that the operator basically knows what he or she is doing and isn’t going to be crashing heavy equipment into someone or something. This is the case in the UK where a photographer friend of mine just got licensed. An assurance of basic competence should not restrict 1st Amendment rights — TV news helicopter pilots have to know what they’re doing, after all.

  • Major Tom

    That said, unless/until clear rules are put in place there should not be fines for breaking non-existent laws.

  • Andrew Read

    It should be up to the state. Maybe as a rule of thumb 400 feet is federal, but anything under that is fair game and don’t fly them over pedestrians that are unaware of its presents? Sounds good to me!

  • Alberto Castilleja

    Control! Control! Control! To alway minimize damages? To hide the real impact of mother nature events so we can be happy! To protect insurance companies? I don’t know! A drone will not flight as high as commercial airplane. It may fly but he is doing a close to the ground recording.

  • flightofbooks

    Drone law in this country is not governed by reason.

  • RMJ

    RC things are controlled since forever (propably (espeially?) even in America by FAA)

    Altho, in most civilized countries the restrictions are purely on the frequencies used by the devices.

  • Uncle Wig

    Kite’s aren’t controllable.

  • SYunghans

    On what grounds is this an issue? What’s the difference between a drone helicopter taking video and still images versus a helicopter with a pilot on board? If anything, the FAA should be thinking about limits on how high and where drones can fly so they don’t get in the way of other aircraft. There is nothing on the books right now regarding the use of drones outside of standing rules on photography generally (you can’t shoot through windows into structures such as office buildings or residences and you can’t shoot in places where other forms of photography are already restricted such as military bases.)

  • manuel liano

    YEAH…!! Looking into cash in…!!

  • Scott

    Which is why you’d think they would be banned rather then drones…

  • Uncle Wig

    Uh, no. Kites are not useful to gather photography over areas such as fresh disasters. Drones are. So, you don’t find people flying kites. The reason the FAA is worried is because helicopters are often used in disaster areas and they don’t need to be worrying about colliding with a drone.

  • Truelight

    So it would have been OK if these were taken by full-sized TV news helicopters, bu the drones are forbidden? Huh???

  • abcdef98765

    There are rules (and I imagine quite a bit of coordination and communication) in place for news helicopters. I doubt that the FAA is trying to forbid drones, just set the reasonable rules…

  • abcdef98765

    Conceptually, the difference is that the FAA *does* have regulation for manned helicopters to avoid or limit problems. I imagine the idea is that they want to put a similar thing in place for drones, but for now are just shuffling trying to figure out what to do while they organize appropriate regulation.

  • SKY

    It’s only illegal to fly drones commercially. Private use there are no regulations. This guy might have an issue with the local emergency response team but not the FAA.

  • overturn

    Well, a news helicopter would most likely not have been allowed into the airspace because the airspace over an active rescue site needs to be clear for medical helicopters.

  • overturn

    It’s up for debate whether or not it’s illegal to fly them commercially. A federal judge overturned the FAA’s jurisdiction to regulate commercial drone flights and it’s currently working it’s way through appeals.

  • overturn

    Possible to prevent the drone from getting in the way of a rescue helicopter?

  • mahirh

    The drone poses danger to actual rescue helicopters.

  • Vin Weathermon

    It sounds to me like a way to keep citizens from monitoring government agency efforts in this or any other area; use this “law” to make sure that footage from police shooting civilians is not ever seen. It is a go pro with battery operated propellers and remote controls. Wedding photographers use them, sports photographers use them…and the argument about “real helicopters” being put in danger does not ring true to me….I think that’s a stretch that pro control folks would like to use but sounds like BS.

  • Alex Mercatali

    The problem with multicopter (drone is the wrong term in my mind), is that in the event of failure (be it an engine, a battery, a propeller, or the flight controller, or even the receveir), they become uncotrollable, and get really fast into the ground.
    A flying object falling even from 50 meters, could result in some serious damage.
    Consider that they usually weight from 1 Kg to 6, and have a 45 cm (at least, the smaller one) round base, well, they need to regulate who can fly them, when and where. Oh, and the battery used, LiPo are highly explosive if damaged…
    Someone mentioned that they don’t fly too high, well, do a search on youtube and will find that is not true at all, it all depends on the radiolink used (5Km range is not so unusual and with the right equipment 15-20 km could be achieved).
    Here in Italy, it’s prohibited to fly any remote vehicle for commercial use without a pilot license (yes, the same that you gotta have to fly an airplane), and you need to send your flight plan to the air controllers.
    Don’t take me wrong, I’m exicted by the possibility given by using multicopters (and I build / fly them), but you gotta use your head, and use it well.
    He could have probably asked the local authorities.

    P.s. = imho when security is a concern, it’s better to use a flying wing if it’s possible, they can glide almost safely to ground in the event of a failure.

  • Les A Lancaster

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    mother-in-law makes $78 /hour on the computer . She has been out of work for
    6 months but last month her pay was $19785 just working on the computer for a
    few hours. view W­o­r­k­s­7­7­.­C­O­M­

  • Mike

    So after NOT colliding with anything, they must pay a fine for what exactly?

  • Uncle Wig

    The FAA is trying to figure out if the NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) established in the airspace over disaster areas applies to drones. In this case: one drone, no harm done. But what if there were a dozen of them? What if two drones collided and dropped on the rescue workers or victims? What if a drone and a helicopter collided? You can be sure that a drone could bring down a chopper. This is the problem. Here is part of the FAR (Federal Aviation Regulation) that applies to this case:

    § 91.137 Temporary flight restrictions in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas.

    (a) The Administrator will issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) designating an area within which temporary flight restrictions apply and specifying the hazard or condition requiring their imposition, whenever he determines it is necessary in order to—

    (1) Protect persons and property on the surface or in the air from a hazard associated with an incident on the surface;

    (2) Provide a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft; or

    (3) Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing and other aircraft above an incident or event which may generate a high degree of public interest.

    The Notice to Airmen will specify the hazard or condition that requires the imposition of temporary flight restrictions.

    (b) When a NOTAM has been issued under paragraph (a)(1) of this section, no person may operate an aircraft within the designated area unless that aircraft is participating in the hazard relief activities and is being operated under the direction of the official in charge of on scene emergency response activities.

  • kirsten863

    My Uncle Harrison recently got Infiniti Q50
    Sedan from only workin part time on a home computer… go to this website

  • Peter “Pots”

    A lot of ado about not a lot. The FAA feels that it is being imposed upon. Most drones don’t go over a couple of hundred feet anyway. Most use extremely wide angle lenses and unless it is used by a totally inept operator, there should not be much of a big deal.

  • Scott

    No one has bothered with Kites because they don’t have the same control and would be a hassle. It’s certainly possible though.

    What I’m getting at is that the lack of control with Kites is a reason you’d think they would be more likely to be banned rather then a drone as it is under control.

    All they have to do about the drone vs helicopter issue is limit drones to a maximum altitude as helicopters (unless they are landing) have to stay a minimum height from the ground.

    It’s easier for them to just make a blanket ban on drones though.

  • Scott

    Do you have to hit another car while drunk driving to get charged? The fine would be to discourage future drone pilots from flying in disaster zones so nothing happens in the future.

    Not that I necessarily agree with it.

  • Werchange

    It’s new technology-it’s just a camera in the air.
    What I’d really like to see stopped is the overzealous denial of the use of my tripod by “security” personnel in public places. Can’t have a steady shot-can’t fly-what’s next to prohibit in photography? (Rhetorical question-save it for some one else! LOL)

  • bontiball

    who cares

  • bontiball

    Just like using a backboard camers= W E A K

  • OrespawnGod

    How could you fine someone who is showing people the damage the tornado caused. Muppets