About a month ago I posted about famed Youtuber Casey Neistat’s FAA investigation. He casually had mentioned in his vlog that he wouldn’t be flying his drone anywhere because he was being investigated and the internet (well, at least the vlog-following part of the internet) went berserk. I tried to clearly distinguish between fact and speculation as to what I thought any enforcement action could look like, after which I was lectured by Internet Commenters about how I was an idiot for not knowing the rules about whatever it is they were saying.
There’s no question about it: some of Neistat’s drone shots are risky, especially in light of the air traffic above New York City. The r/caseyneistat subreddit and other drone enthusiast sites would constantly go nuts whenever Casey would fly, assuming that Casey had not secured proper permits or licenses to fly in controlled airspace.
As a fan of Neistat’s, a fellow drone operator, and a blogger I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on. So I did what any responsible person would do:
recklessly speculated and presented my opinions as fact I petitioned the FAA for records of any investigation or compliance action regarding Casey Neistat under the Freedom of Information Act.
Today I received the results of my request. The FAA could not provide any sort of inter-office emails, but what they provided was still very interesting: a short summary of the complaints received about Casey Neistat and action taken on them.
So, was it as exciting and crazy as I’m hoping for?
Well, not really. Like most things, the details are usually much more boring than the headlines.
The claims revolve around one thing: evidence. Namely, there is very little of it. “But on his video he’s clearly in controlled airspace!!!!!” I know, but some of the resolutions reference an official FAA notice to aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) about electronic media on the internet.
(you can read the policy letter here: https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Notice/N_8900.292.pdf)
The complaint resolutions reference this specific section of the policy:
7. Evidence. In all cases, the FAA must have acceptable evidence in support of all alleged facts in order to take legal enforcement action. Inspectors are reminded that:
• Electronic media posted on the Internet is only one form of evidence which may be used to support an enforcement action and it must be authenticated;
• Electronic media posted on the Internet is ordinarily not sufficient evidence alone to determine that an operation is not in compliance with 14 CFR; however, electronic media may serve as evidence of possible violations and may be retained for future enforcement action; and
• Inspectors have no authority to direct or suggest that electronic media posted on the Internet must be removed.
Note: Electronic media posted on a video Web site does not automatically constitute a commercial operation or commercial purpose, or other non-hobby or non-recreational use.
So, in essence, a lot of people are saying that Casey is obviously flying his drone for commercial purposes. While I would tend to agree, the sheer fact that he’s posting drone shots on a YouTube channel does not automatically mean he’s flying it commercially.
Additionally, the FAA cannot act simply because Neistat posts a drone clip in his vlog, per the second bulletpoint. Sure, a drone clip can be used as part of a broader investigation but most people complained about specific videos.
I’ll do my best to paraphrase the complaints but will add quotes as necessary.
Anyway, let’s get into the complaints
Complaint 1, 5/24/2016: Angry Guy Rants
A gentleman (name redacted) called the FAA and reported Casey Neistat’s use of his UAS (drone) via the FAA’s Hotline Complaint system. He “seemed agitated and upset” and asked the hotline operator if they were taking the complaint seriously and wanted to know “what [they] are doing to Mr. Neistat.” The person responded that they were dealing with the situation. But then the FAA person asked if the gentleman wanted to make a complaint and he ignored them and rambled that “Neistat makes a lot of money and disregards the FAA and he’s going to make sure he has other people file complaints”. The operator again asked if the gentleman wanted to make a complaint and he got angry and hung up on them.
Lesson learned here: a phone call to the FAA’s hotline is not an official complaint. Also, if you ramble along like a jerk someone will make a note of it and it’ll be part of some dude’s random blog post someday.
Complaint 2, 8/30/2016: Some interesting bits
Someone complained that based on his vlogs they suspected that he did not have permission from nearby airports to operate in their airspace. The office conducted an investigation. They found that Neistat indeed had drone footage in some videos but it was “indeterminable whether or not Mr. Neistat is operating the device”. They found that Neistat does not have a Section 333 UAS Exemption but had registered his drone as a hobbyist. The result of the investigation: “unless the Complainant personally witnesses Mr. Neistat operating the drone, we cannot use electronic media as a sole means to substantiate the complaint.” Apparently a letter was sent to Casey in May 2016 explaining the rules and regulations (perhaps after Complaint 1).
Complaint 3, 9/15/2016: More of the same
Pretty much mimics Complaint 2, nothing new here.
Complaint 4, 10/5/2016: Nashville
Casey flew his drone in this vlog and someone complained to the FAA. Complaint was closed due to lack of evidence.
Complaint 5, 10/14/2016: Not just Casey
The anonymous complaint referenced Casey, iJessica, and “other Youtubers that are “getting BEYOND reckless with their drones”. Complaint closed again due to lack of evidence that they were operating the drones.
Complaint 6, 10/20/2016: More of the same
The complaint was unable to be substantiated because, again, electronic media cannot be used as a sole means to substantiate the request. One would’ve had to see Casey operating the drone in an illegal manner in order to further legitimize the complaint.
Complaint 7, 10/25/2016: A list of three email complaints
Nothing really here except for someone calling it “You Tube” which I giggled at.
Complaint 8, 5/5/2017: The (relative) Big One
This is actually a list of some complaints not mentioned elsewhere.
- On 1/19/17 (related to this vlog I’m guessing) they received a complaint on the FAA website stating: “You guys should take a good look at this guy. [redacted] I don’t know for certain if Adventureland is inside the KFRG Class D. I’m fairly certain he’s not in compliance with any of the published UAS regs, or any reg pertaining to operating any kind of aircraft in towered airspace. I would not want to be flying the aircraft that ingests one of these chunks of plastic. He’s not ensuring any kind of see-and avoid, he’s not in contact with the tower, he’s got no transponder. It’s dangerous ignorant and foolish. Thanks.”
- 1/20/17 Inspectors from the office determined that the operations in the video footage appear to be located within Class D airspace of KFRG. Inspectors identified the operators as Casey Neistat and Dean Neistat. It further indicates that Dean Neistat is a certified Commercial Pilot (redacting the Certificate number) and a Certified Remote Pilot (redacting the Certificate number.
- 1/26/17 Letters of investigation were sent to Casey Neistat and Dean Neistat
- 4/3/17 UAS information letters were sent to the brothers (a big part of the FAA drone regulations is education apparently)
- 5/3/17 “After conferring with the FAA Eastern Region UAS Focal Point, Inspectors from this office have determined that the investigation lacks sufficient evidence for enforcement or compliance action.” It goes on to reference the policy letter mentioned above.
Kind of a mix, really. The FAA needs a lot of evidence to support an enforcement action and clearly sending them links to YouTube videos isn’t enough. That said, this list could be comprehensive but it also could have left off any new current investigations that for some reason were excluded from the request.
None of the complaint resolutions have anything to do with whether or not Neistat’s flying is responsible. This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of how he chooses to fly his drone, it simply means that the FAA does not currently have enough evidence to pursue an enforcement action. Could that happen at a later date? Absolutely. But, to date, they don’t have sufficient evidence.