Drone Operator Sentenced…

The Cost of Carelessness: Operator Sentenced in Space Needle Incident

By Wknight94 [GFDL  or CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Seattle’s Space Needle seems to attract drones, and it seems that officials have decided enough is enough.  Seattle lawmakers pushed for drone regulations back in 2014 when a drone video of the Space Needle went viral.  Since then, Seattle has had other incidents: 2015 saw a crash at the Gay Pride parade, rendering one woman unconscious; another drone crashed into the city’s giant Ferris Wheel that same year.

On New Year’s Eve, December 31 of 2016, a drone crashed into the monument, and fell onto a platform.  Nobody was harmed, and the Space Needle did not suffer any damage.  That didn’t matter: since the drone (an Inspire 1) was recovered, the operator was identified – and called to account.  Officials heaped humiliation upon the operator by publishing FPV video of the crash.

That operator, 20-year old Cole Kelley, was sentenced on Tuesday.  While Kelley won’t have to serve jail time, part of his sentence is that he must forfeit his drone and agree not to fly in future.

Kelley pleaded guilty  to a gross misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment.  Court records say that he operated the drone in ” a manner that caused a likelihood of harm to persons or property.” Kelley was in clear violation of FAA rules, flying over 400 feet in altitude.  He was given a 364-day sentence, suspended; and a $5,000 fine, with all but $250. suspended.

While a $250. fine is not extreme, the demand that Kelley forfeit his drone and lose his right to fly was a surprise to some in the industry.  The case comes at a time when some commercial operators are calling for stricter enforcement of laws for recreational flyers, after a spate of recent bad publicity has threatened more drone regulation for all operators.  In any case, the fact that Kelley was prosecuted makes the FAA’s position clear: there will be a cost for carelessness when flying drones.

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.