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FAA Proposes $1.9 Million Fine Against Drone Operator For Alleged Airspace Violations

The $1.9 million civil penalty against Chicago business SkyPan International would be the largest ever levied against a drone operator by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Posted on October 6, 2015, at 5:40 p.m. ET

Rick Bowmer / AP

This file photo shows a rescue drone being flown during a demonstration.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday proposed a $1.9 million fine be imposed against a Chicago company for operating drones within crowded, restricted airspace.

The fine would be largest ever levied against a drone operator by the FAA, far exceeding the previous record of $18,700, which was proposed in September against Xizmo Media, a New York video production company, the Associated Press reported.

In proposing the nearly $2-million penalty against SkyPan International, Inc., the FAA alleged the company conducted 65 unauthorized commercial aerial photography drone flights over New York City and Chicago between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014. Of those, 43 violated highly restricted New York Class B airspace, the agency said.

"Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations is illegal and can be dangerous," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations."

Part of the reason the proposed fine is so high is because federal inspectors had asked SkyPan to stop the flights, but the company continued anyway, FAA spokesman Les Dorr told the AP.

On its website, the company touts the use of "proprietary Remote Piloted Vehicles" that have ushered in "a whole new world of aerial and panoramic photography."

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, SkyPan said it has an "impeccable record" over its 27-year history of aerial photography.

SkyPan has been conducting aerial photography above private property in urban areas for 27 years in full compliance with published FAA regulations.

SkyPan is fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public's safety, security and privacy. Images produced by SkyPan have been used to sell or lease commercial and residential real estate throughout North America.

The FAA, however, alleges that SkyPan operated in airspace without receiving clearance from air traffic control. The aircraft also was not equipped with a two-way radio, transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment, the agency found.

The FAA is also alleging that on all 65 flights, the drones lacked airworthiness certificates, required registration, and were operated in a "careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property."

SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the FAA's letter outlining the allegations and proposed fine.

The proposed fine comes as the FAA continues to grapple with the rising popularity of drones, both for commercial and private use. Drones have repeatedly grounded water-dropping aircraft over wildfires and have drawn the ire of privacy advocates.

Currently, hobbyists must keep their drones 5 miles from an airport and fly no higher than 400 feet.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.