Drone crash at AT&T Stadium frames FAA debate over regulation

When Robert Eddelmancrashed a drone into AT&T Stadium in June 2014, sending it tumbling down its spaceship-style roof like a piece of falling ice, that was bad enough.

But soon Eddelman found himself in even more trouble after he flew another remote-controlled quadcopter over the stadium, its next-door neighbors Globe Life Park and Six Flags Over Texas and then through the downtown Dallas skyline, incurring the wrath of the FAA.

“This wasn’t a good day for me,” said Eddelman, calling himself a “dumb ass” in a video posted on YouTube for flying the remote-controlled vehicle into the $1.2 billion stadium. In June, after a federal investigation that stretched from Hong Kong to the Austin area, Eddelman ended up paying a $1,000 fine.

While the incident may seem harmless enough — no one was hurt — officials say Eddelman’s careless behavior is exactly why more regulation of drones is needed. The FAA is expected to unveil a registration system soon.

The FAA says the number of sightings of unmanned aircraft by airplane pilots has soared, with more than 750 drones spotted nationwide from November 2014 to August 2015. Pilots reported seeing drones flying as high as 10,000 feet.

“This is a good example of how we don’t want people to fly,” said Cade Miller, the FAA attorney in Fort Worth who handled the Eddelman case, saying it’s a case study for why more regulation is needed.

“We understand there are a lot of drones, but you’ve got to use common sense in using these,” he said. “Some can fly at a pretty high speed and in a crowd it wouldn’t be good if it hit you on your head.”

Attempts to contact Eddelman, who describes himself on his YouTube page as an engineer who likes to “investigate and test out things,” were unsuccessful. But in a letter he wrote to the FAA that was obtained by the Star-Telegram through a Freedom of Information request, he argues that he didn’t “break any existing law or regulation.” Still, he said, he planned to give up flying quadcopters.

“I have not flown any more since the incident in question because I could clearly see that the public has a great hate about those quadcopters flying in public,” Eddelman wrote. “It also seemed clear that the FAA was going to be going after people flying these things and wanting to put way more restrictions and regulations in place … So I decided the risk of flying those things isn’t worth it because if anything would ever happen, the pilot flying one of those things would be crucified.”

A proponent of unmanned aerial vehicles criticized Eddelman’s actions but thinks the FAA is overreaching in its latest effort to register drones as small as toys people fly in their backyards.

“The guy was stupid. He was flying where he didn’t need to be,” said Ed Couch, a 69-year-old model airplane enthusiast in North Richland Hills who is also a fixed-wing pilot. He is careful when he flies his quadcopter, knowing that it could hurt someone if it hits them. “Those are little knives going around at a fast rate.”

The FAA has struggled for years to decide how to regulate the emerging technology, and Couch said its proposed registration program should never get off the ground.

“That is almost ludicrous. The government can’t even do this [registration] with guns, how can you do it with this?” he said.

Hello Big D

In the video, Eddelman’s folksy twang makes it seem like he’s taking a leisurely Sunday drive.

“Hey folks, I decided to take me a drive up to the Big D, Dallas, and over to Arlington where the Cowboys stadium’s at, Rangers stadium, Six Flags. I hadn’t filmed any in that area yet,” Eddelman says at the beginning of a video obtained through an open records request. The video was shot on June 8, 2014, and uploaded on YouTube two days later. It was later taken down.

Over the next 16 minutes of video, Eddelman — with country music playing in the background — describes his flights over Arlington and Dallas, the drone sometimes reaching heights that were near 600 feet. He comments on the football stadium (“It’s a big, nice-looking building, let me tell ya. It is a lot bigger than what it looks like on camera.”); Six Flags roller coasters (“There for a minute I was thinking they didn’t have anybody on the rides, then I saw they launched a car.”); and Reunion Tower (“One of these days if I’m ever driving through there and it’s night time, I’ll get a good aerial shot of it all lit up at night.”)

He also describes what happened with the first quadcopter that he lost at the stadium, which is about 300 feet tall. Eddelman says he was flying his vehicle below the rooftop level of the building when the stadium got between himself and the transmitter, cutting off the control signal and video feed without warning. Consequently, the vehicle ran into the side of the stadium.

On the video, Eddelman talks about the overall interference he encountered with his video feed in Arlington’s entertainment district, making it “a little bit difficult flying” since he couldn’t keep a close eye on how high or low he was. He also talks about how strong the wind was that day.

Eddelman sent the Dallas Cowboys an email on the night of June 8 seeking to get his quadcopter back — which he valued at $1,500. But he eventually dropped his pursuit, telling them in a later email that they could destroy it “as I have no use for it anymore.”

By then, FAA investigators were on the case. But tracking down Eddelman and the evidence took some time.

Starting only with the crashed device, FAA investigators used subpoenas to get information from the Dallas Cowboys and from DJI, the Hong Kong manufacturer of the Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter. They used the serial number on the 2.5-pound aircraft to identify the purchaser, Eddelman, who lived in the Austin area, as the owner.

By early December, the FAA proposed $2,200 in sanctions against Eddelman because he flew his aircraft in a “reckless and careless manner.” Among other things, he was accused of flying the quadcopter in protected airspace without getting clearance. In the Metroplex, the FAA controls the airspace up to 11,000 feet. He was also charged with flying over people in their seats at Globe Life Park and on rides at Six Flags, and for flying over 575 feet to get over Reunion Tower. It is recommended that model aircraft stay below 400 feet.

In a written response, Eddelman said his quadcopter was loaded with software that would have prevented a flight in restricted air space that is controlled by the FAA and that some of the agency’s rule interpretations were based on advisories and not existing laws or regulations. Still, he was amenable to paying $500 fine.

By June, the FAA and Eddelman agreed on a $1,000 fine to be paid by August. The agency now considers the case to be closed.

Debate still takes flight

The debate over drone regulation and registration, however, is far from over.

The federal government has been working on a strategy for drones since Congress passed the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act that included a special rule for model aircraft. The agency as a result has come up with some basic rules which include not flying within 5 miles of an airport, not flying a drone over 400 feet and not buzzing around stadiums and such.

More complete regulations are expected sometime next year, including keeping the drone within “visual line of sight” without the aid of a camera or other devices.

But because of reports of near misses of drones with airliners flying at tens of thousands of feet, coupled with industry predictions that 700,000 UAVs will be sold by year’s end, the FAA recently formed a task force to look at registering drones. They recommended that new owners get an identification number for any UAV that weighs more than half a pound by registering online. The task force recommended the FAA establish a clear and proportional penalty framework.

“The types of activity you see detailed in this [Eddelman] case, we’re seeing on a daily basis around the country,” said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA in Fort Worth and Dallas. He said they routinely hear about unmanned aircraft flying over D/FW Airport and Love Field.

Fort Worth attorney Jim Lane, a pilot and former instructor who specializes in aviation law, said something needs to be done, although he wonders if regulating drones will swamp the already overworked FAA.

“I think it’s fixing to turn into an unbelievably dangerous situation,” Lane said. “They started out as little bitty things and now they can fly longer and farther. You’ve got to have control because Mom and Dad are going to buy Junior a drone.”

Critics like the Competitive Enterprise Institute say the FAA lacks the jurisdiction to impose registration and that mere registration — either at point of sale or prior to operation — will do little to mitigate safety risks.

Charles Barnett, an Illinois attorney who also practices aviation law when he’s not flying for a major airline, says there has to be a balance.

“The question is if it is manageable and feasible. I don’t know the number of drones that have been sold and it is one of the hottest things under the Christmas tree. So you can imagine the burden of registering those owners,” Barnett said. “It is a rapidly developing area of the law.”

Couch understands the need to fly drones safely because there are only two types of model airships: Those that have crashed and those that will crash. He’s not sure registration is the answer.

“You can’t fix stupid. There are people out there who are going to do what they are going to do,” he said.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB