HARTFORD — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating if a WFSB employee violated agency regulations when he flew a drone equipped with a camera over the scene of a fatal car crash on Feb. 1.
“The FAA became aware of the incident last night and we are investigating,” said FAA spokesman Jim Peters.
The FAA does not allow the commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The incident in Hartford has drawn Connecticut into a national debate about FAA policy over the use of drones for journalism, which the agency considers a commercial use.
A Hartford Police Department police report doesn’t accuse the person with the drone, who said he was not working that day, of breaking the rules, and no charges were filed.
But the report says that the presence of a drone, a remote-controlled aircraft, at a crime scene for journalistic purposes violates FAA regulations.
“To the best of our knowledge a private citizen has the right to fly a drone. Our only concern is the privacy of victims and officer safety issues,” said Lt. Brian Foley, a department spokesman.
Foley also said he has seen a drone at crime scenes a few times.
Klarn DePalma, WFSB vice president and general manager, said the station doesn’t own or use drones.
“The person identified in the police report is a temporary, on-call employee of WFSB,” she said. “However, he was not working for the station on the day of the incident. He was not assigned to shoot video of the crime scene by WFSB and has never been compensated for any drone video.”
Police officers and supervisors at the scene of the crash on the 2000 block of Main Street noticed the drone, which was equipped with a camera, hovering over the site, according to the police report.
The person operating it, Pedro Rivera, 29, told the officers he works for WFSB, but that was not working that day and that the drone was his personal property. He also said that he feeds video back to WFSB as part of his work for the station, the report says.
The police sergeant who wrote the report expressed concern that flying a drone over the scene might compromise the integrity of the scene and the “privacy of the victim’s body.”
“The body was covered by a blanket and not readily visible in this case, but that may not always be the case,” Sgt. Edward Yergeau wrote in the report.
Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications and founder of the college’s Drone Journalism Lab, said he learned about Hartford’s drone incident from a post on Facebook.
He said he wasn’t surprised by the police response.
“The lack of real policy from the FAA that goes beyond, ‘No,’ means that things like this are going to happen,” Waite said.
Government entities can use drones under severe restrictions. Hobbyists can, too, as long as they are not compensated for the use. The federal agency otherwise has no specific regulations dealing with drones, although they have been in the process of drafting them, he said.
Matthew Schroyer, founder and president of DroneJournalism.org, said drone use wasn’t too much of an issue until recently, when they became cheaper and easier to use. He said Congress mandated the FAA to produce rules about how to integrate larger drones into the national airspace by next year.
Rules governing small drones — the kind that don’t fly over 400 feet and could be used by journalists — were supposed to come out sooner.
“We’re still waiting for them. There’s a lot of frustration about what the holdup is,” Schroyer said.