Raphael Pirker is perhaps the most famous drone pilot in the world. He’s been called an “aerial anarchist,” having buzzed past the skyscrapers of Dubai, the Statue of Liberty, the French Alps, and the Golden Gate Bridge, among many other famous locales. And for at least a little while, he managed to turn the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) efforts to regulate drones in the United States completely upside down.
In 2011, the University of Virginia Medical Center hired Pirker, now 30 years old and originally from Austria, to film a promotional video for the school. The FAA caught wind of the flight, and fined Pirker $10,000 for violating its rules against commercial drone flights. It was the agency’s first attempt to bat hobbyist drones out of the sky.
They picked the wrong target.
Along with his attorney Brendan Schulman, Pirker, who goes by “Trappy” online, not only beat the fine, they effectively argued that the FAA’s drone rules could not be enforced, threatening the very foundation of the Administration’s authority to regulate small aircraft in the U.S.
Since that March 2014 ruling, the FAA has revamped its rules and, of course, filed an appeal. Just last week, Pirker settled with the FAA for $1,100—an outcome that both sides count as a win.
We caught up with Pirker following the settlement to get his take on drones, regulation, and what’s next for this increasingly popular and controversial technology.
“Our goal was always to experience the world from a different point of view, like from a pilot seat but a view that would not be possible from an airplane.”
How did your drone hobby get started?
I started model aviation as a hobby quite early, and drones at about 7 or 8. And it just kind of stuck wit me throughout my entire life. And now that the drone technology has been coming up, we were one of the first to start video piloting, which means you don’t fly by looking at the model. You fly specifically by looking at the video feed from the airplane. And we started that about 11 to 12 years ago. We’ve just been progressing and daring ourselves, improving our skills and our technology.
Our goal was always to experience the world from a different point of view, like from a pilot seat but a view that would not be possible from an airplane because the airplanes are just too big. It’s just a new layer to discover, the layer between ground level and full flight.
How would you describe first-person view (FPV) flying for someone who’s never done it?
The technology and everything else is different. You’re no longer piloting something in the air. You’re actually in the air yourself. … Your brain stops to distinguish between the screen that you’re watching and your body that’s standing on the ground. Everything becomes one, and you’re kind of flying through the air and experiencing everything from the point of view of the aircraft. It’s an out-of-body experience and an amazing feeling. Every kid wants to fly, right? This is one of the safest ways and one of the most technologically advanced ways, at this point, that we have to achieve this.
Your company is TBS Avionics, which combines both a business and community aspects. Tell us a bit about it.
We started it as just a hobby community of pilots who got together on weekends and flew their drones. But as time progressed, we were so far advanced in developing our own equipment and our own designs for aircraft that a lot of people asked us, “Where can we buy your stuff?” So TBS Avionics was a response to that. And we formed a company that’s now based in Hong Kong that manufactures these, I guess you could call it a drone, or solutions, or components for this FPV hobby.
Why Hong Kong?
Most of manufacturing in this industry is done in China, so it’s just across the border; the place is call Shenzhen. And Hong Kong is just a place to be. It’s very Western. It’s not like China, where you have borders and you have bribe officials to get stuff done. It’s very favorable for trade and, in general, is just an awesome place to be.
How did the FAA find out about your flight at the University of Virginia that sparked the first lawsuit in the U.S. against a drone operator?
The way they always find out is, some idiot on YouTube thinks he’s doing the hobbyists a favor by reporting to the FAA. This is actually how all the government agencies these days are [finding out about] various flights. They have no idea about what flight is actually happening. All they know about is flights that end up in crashes, or if they end up on YouTube and somebody reports it to them.
So I guess the reason why they responded was because we had shot several videos in the United States that were already being reported. However, back in those days, they didn’t have the legal means to do anything about them because [the videos] were strictly hobbyist use. And they were specific that we did follow [the drone], so they weren’t actually illegal, but they found them objectionable.
The Virginia one was the first one we did for, I guess you could say, for hire or for compensation. So they had an opportunity to actually go after us. However, [they were wrong] on the for-hire part because it wasn’t actually a law; it was just a policy statement, and that didn’t really apply to anyone except for FAA officials and government officials. And this is why the case ended up being settled now because they had to shift their entire language around to “reckless endangerment,” which makes it easy to defend but very expensive.
In the end, it just turned out to be something that would have cost us another million [dollars] to defend, and it’s just not worth the fight. Because the discussion is, “Can a foam model aircraft cause damage?” It’s kind of a childish discussion. But you need to hire experts. You need to pay for their accommodations. You need to fly them in. So this is why we eventually ended up settling. And I think the FAA was pretty happy about that as well.
Do you have a sense of how the settlement or your case will affect drone regulation policy in the U.S.?
That’s actually one of the other reasons why we settled. It doesn’t have any impact at all anymore. It used to have a lot of impact because it was discussing the laws that were in place at that time. But since the case has progressed—it took about three years to finish—and in those three years, the FAA has done various reinterpretations of the laws that make this case a nonissue because they all apply on old interpretations, and therefore the case actually didn’t really matter. Even if we had won, the FAA would have just said, “OK, back then this was legal. But now there’s a new law.” So that’s actually another reason why we stopped fighting this.
What do you think good drone regulations look like? Are there any countries doing it right?
There are countries that are certainly warming up to the idea that this is not going away, and they’d rather deal with it now than later. If you look at the way, for example, that Australia’s doing, they’re one of my favorite examples. They have weight-based restrictions, commercial use is based on operator experience, same for the U.K. and for Germany. They have very, very easy-to-go through processes that pilots can certify themselves and also certify their aircraft.
“It’s really not a privacy concern. The cameras that we have aren’t even close to what we have on mobile phones.”
Eventually they will need to realize that these are toys, especially the ones the hobbyists use. I mean, there are commercial rigs that can weigh up to 20-25 kilos. But that’s another ballpark entirely. But if they warm up to the idea that there can be safe operations without [pilots] needing to have a pilot’s license, which is the rumor that’s going to happen now in the U.S., or a lengthy Certificate of Authority, all these kinds of things. I think that would be a good direction.
On the one hand, it needs to be weight-based. On the other, it needs to take into account operator experience. I think this is the safest way. If you make it too complex, then nobody’s going to do the authorization. And none of these agencies even have a fraction of the budget available that they would need to effectively police this. I don’t think there’s any way to effectively police this because I can just launch this thing out of my balcony and land it back in my balcony, and I can fly wherever I want. So there is no way that anybody is going to catch anybody, unless it goes to video online and someone says, “Hey, I did it.”
What do you think of the privacy fears about hobby drones?
If someone comes up to me and says, “This is a privacy concern,” it tells me one thing about them: They have no idea about the technology. It’s really not a privacy concern. The cameras that we have aren’t even close to what we have on mobile phones, and they’re miles away from the people who you would want to spy on.
I don’t know, it’s kind of a ridiculous discussion. It think these people are either too lazy or too afraid to actually research the technology. All of the laws for what we can and cannot do are already in place. Just because this new technology is out there, it doesn’t change the laws. Spying on somebody is a crime whether you do it with a drone or with a mobile phone or with a telescope. So this discussion is kind of pointless. If you want to regulate drones on the basis that they can violate privacy, you need to regulate mobile phones; you need to regulate basically anything that has a camera.
What advice would you get into someone who wants to get into drones?
It’s pretty much not the way people are starting now. Most of the people nowadays are buying ready-to-fly machines that anybody can just take out of the box and fly. I think that the most reasonable way to get into this is by building one yourself with very few components, and just crashing it a couple of times. Because that’s how you learn what the parts of the system are. And then you can go on a buy one of the ready-to-fly systems that are more advanced, or can do more filming or more stable footage.
At the heart of the system, you need to understand the components that control it and how to properly use them. So I guess the best place is one of the various Internet forums and just reading up on the subject. At least, that’s the most successful way to go about it. It’s not the fastest way, and it’s not the easiest way. The easiest way is obviously just going on Amazon and buying one of the ready-to-fly systems.
Some hobbyists don’t like to call these vehicles “drones.” They say quadcopters, UAS, or UAV is better. What’s your thought on the term “drone”?
I guess the discussion is because it has a negative connotation. But essentially, these are drones, so I would say let’s call it a drone. And let’s make sure that all of the negative uses of drones are banned, and then we can go on using the name properly.
With the FAA baggage behind you, what comes next?
We’re always going to continue developing drones that can fly further, that can fly higher, that can do other stuff. That’s pretty much what satisfies us. In my spare time, I love to travel, and I love to see places from different perspectives. That’s pretty much it for me.
Illustration by J. Longo