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Drone Pilot Fined $20,000 For Landing Drone at McCarran Airport, Las Vegas

BY Isabella Lee
3 December 2019

The FAA has fined a drone pilot $20,000 for multiple violations, including imposing a hazard to other aircraft when his flyaway DJI Phantom 3 drone landed at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, NV.

A DJI Phantom 3 drone landed at McCarran Airport near an active runway. Image Source: Marco Verch

The pilot, Reuben Burciaga, was originally fined $14,700, but his failure to pay or repeal on time resulted in late fees that brought the total up to $20,000. The FAA first fined Burciaga in April 2019.

Burciaga confirmed that the drone was his, and he posted the video captured with the drone to YouTube, with the caption:

“My drone flew away after loosing [sic] GPS, drifting 4 miles away landing at McCarren [sic] airport when Trump was in town and [the] drone was intercepted by Secret Service. Even after showing it was a system failure I was still fined 15,000!!!”

It is illegal to fly a drone near/over the Las Vegas strip without authorization from the FAA. Unauthorized drones can cause serious hazards for planes and their passengers taking off and landing at McCarran International Airport less than five miles away. To make matters more concerning, if the President was in the area, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) would have been put in place, adding to the litany of violations acted out by Burciaga.

Here is the footage Burciaga shared on YouTube:


Drone Pilot Loses Control of Drone after Flying Irresponsibly Over Las Vegas Strip

The drone incident unfolded when Burciaga attempted to get an aerial photograph of a Ferris wheel. Not unlike other tourists, he wanted to capture the sights Las Vegas has to offer. However, he was either unaware or uncaring that taking to the skies to do so would break the law and result in a steep fine.

The High Roller Ferris Wheel in Las Vegas Nevada. Image Source: Prime Cinematics 

He reports losing control of his Phantom 3 about ten minutes into the flight. The camera on the drone was still recording and shows the drone drifting more than two miles at an altitude of 450 feet until it lands near an active runway at McCarran Airport.

The drone was retrieved by airport officials who handed it over to the FAA. The FAA had a hard time determining who the drone belonged to since the registration number on the aircraft was marked incorrectly.

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told the TV station Fox 5 KVVU-TV that it took some creativity for the investigators to figure out who the drone belonged to.

Our investigators got a little bit creative and started transposing drone numbers into the system and lo and behold that’s when the drone popped up in the registry. And we were able to link it back to the owner.

— Ian Gregor, FAA spokesperson

The FAA mailed the drone back to Burciaga along with a letter notifying him of the fine and his nine violations including flying in controlled airspace, flying over people, and imposing a hazard to other aircraft.

The FAA is Enforcing Fines and Increasing Surveillance

The FAA has cracked down on enforcing fines on drone pilots who fly recklessly.

Anyone flying in a careless and reckless manner could face civil and criminal penalties, as well as jail time. The FAA could fine you up to $27,500 for civil penalties and/or up to $250,000 for criminal penalties.

Know Before You Fly

The FAA has been critiqued in the past for being too lenient when enforcing drone regulations. In 2016, they had only issued about 20 penalties according to data obtained by VICE through the Freedom of Information Act. In 2018, the number of penalties issued had increased to about 50 according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report. These numbers are still low considering that there are over 415,000 commercial drones registered and only 158,554 FAA-licensed drone pilots as of November 2019.

The pilots fined have been guilty of a wide range of violations, from flying for commercial purposes without a license to operating over crowds of people without the proper waiver.

Since drones are piloted remotely, their operators are difficult to track down. As in the case with Burciaga, registration numbers meant to tie drones to their operators aren’t always marked correctly. The FAA updated its remote ID marking requirement in February 2019 to make it easier to identify drone operators. Additionally, the FAA is investigating other data sharing techniques and remote ID solutions that will allow people on the ground to gather more information about drones in the air.

Also, in April 2019, the FAA ordered increased surveillance of drone operations in areas where reports of risky or noncompliant drone operations are high. Some sites identified for increased surveillance include communities near airports, areas with wildfire activity, and areas with ongoing emergency response efforts.

Do you think the $20,000 fine imposed on Burciaga was warranted? Chime in on this thread on our community forum.

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