UT stadium drone highlights vague laws

Police questioned a UT student Saturday after they say he flew a drone over DKR Memorial Stadium during UT's home opener. (Todd Bynum / KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas student detained during Saturday night’s football game after flying a drone above the stadium has not been charged, but his drone was seized. Now the incident is highlighting the gray area surrounding drone laws.

“I wish people would use common sense,” said Robert Youens with Camera Wings Aerial Photography. “It is not a good idea to fly any aircraft low over crowds of people.”

Youens is a professional when it comes to aerial photography using drones, but admits he typically carries a copy of Texas House Bill 912 with him. The bill passed last September spells out the state law when it comes to drone use and says it becomes illegal when used with the intention of taking photos or surveillance of private property.

The University of Texas said Sunday they were concerned with the use of drones and safety on campus is their priority. Tuesday they released another statement refuting the assertion the public university would fall under public property fair game for drones.

“The University of Texas at Austin is a public university, however that does not mean our buildings and/or campus is public property and open for use by the public.

The public is admitted to buildings by invitation.  For example: Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium (DKR) is a facility in which the public is granted admission with a limited license (a ticket).”

The laws concerning drone use are so fine, Youens not only carries the law with him, but he often refers to a website run by Brendan Schulman, special counsel with Unmanned Aircraft Systems based in New York.

“In terms of the federal regulatory landscape, we are in a bit of a gray area right now,” said Schulman on Tuesday when contacted by phone.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not have regulations specific to drones according to Schulman who has helped successfully fight for drone operator rights including a ruling which allowed Texas Equusearch to continue using drones for search operations after the FAA tried to stop them. Schulman could not talk about the incident at DKR Stadium specifically, but says the lack of clarity about the laws may lead some law enforcement officials to act instinctively rather than by statute.

“You wonder if it is a lack of knowledge about the technology, the fact that it is new, it hovers in the air, that it may cause certain officials to believe there is something on the books to address that technology when there often isn’t.”

Still even if the actual use of the drone is legal, Schulman said it does not protect the operator who may act reckless.

“If you are doing something dangerous with any kind of device; a baseball, a golf ball, or perhaps a drone, there are statures of general application that might apply,” he explained.

Drone versus model plane?

As the price of “drones” continues to free fall, their popularity and use is skyrocketing. These days, the are showing up everywhere. Even at University of Texas football games. But what’s the difference between a model plane flown by a hobbyist on a weekend and a drone?

According to the FAA, the line is very fine. Congress defines a model airplane as “capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.”

The FAA regulates model airplanes, telling pilots not to fly above 400 feet and over heavily populated areas.

A drone, the FAA says, is something that can be used for commercial purposes, say something like aerial photography. There are exclusions for private use, you could fly a drone over your house to take video for your own purposes, but the moment you make money from the footage you’re breaking the law.

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