Zack Lytle is the kind of limits-pushing, free-spirited hacker who is in an almost constant state of ideation.
He’s always launching one new venture or another, whether it’s finding a loophole in frequent flier miles – the kind that has afforded him free flights since 2007 – or writing cheat software for popular online games like World of Warcraft.
But his most recent business has him flying head-on into federal controversy.
Using custom-built drones, the recent Virginia Tech graduate began operating an aerial photography company for local organizations last year. Since then, he’s helped film mansions in Florida, snowboarders in Colorado and promotional videos for cloud-computing company Rackspace, where he works his day job as a product developer.
But the FAA says all commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, requires their specific approval. It’s a nod the administration has only bestowed upon one operation, and that was for a series of flights above the Arctic – not Blacksburg, Virginia.
The small helicopters were called remote controlled toys when Lytle, 25, first began flying them when he was 11 years old.
But now that they’re more advanced and cheaper ($479 on Amazon.com), they’re called drones and said to be the foundation of a multibillion dollar industry. Everything from crop dusting to feature film photography, supporters say, could be made easier with UAVs.
Drones have been used for these kinds of applications aboveboard outside the United States, like filming the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, earlier this year. But they remain highly regulated domestically.
Congress has ordered the FAA to come up with regulations to govern how UAVs will be safely incorporated into the airspace so they’re not falling out of the sky or getting sucked into jetliners’ engines.
To help with the effort, the FAA named six certified research and test site operators across the country, including Virginia Tech.
The administration is drafting that proposal now and expects to release it by November, possibly sooner. From there, it could take years to become finalized law, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
But in the meantime, battle lines are being drawn between the FAA, which is struggling to regulate the emerging technology in the absence of these rules, and a community of thousands of technology enthusiasts who want to explore the full potential of drones.
Pilots across the country are growing impatient and defying the FAA’s ban. As recently as last month, a drone was openly used to take aerial photos of the train derailment in Lynchburg – arguably a commercial use of the technology.
"What’s wrong is that we’ve identified uses for this technology and we want to act on those," Lytle said. "They’re so cheap; they’re so effective; they’re so safe. And we’re getting pushback from the government because they’re not prepared. So it’s a failure of the government to stay up with technology."
Dorr said UAV regulations are a priority for the administration, but this kind of thing just takes time.
"Think about the magnitude of the task," he said. "We are trying to integrate a very dynamic technology where something new seems to come out every week into the busiest and most complex airspace in the world. … It’s a very challenging task to draft regulations that will maintain today’s extraordinary level of safety without putting an undue economic burden on an emerging technology."
Dorr added that even without finalized UAV rules, the FAA has the authority to ban unauthorized commercial use of the drones – a response Lytle disagrees with, but expected.
Both sides of the debate seem to understand how things work when the FAA does clamp down.
First the FAA hears about someone who is making money off flying UAVs, from sources like this newspaper article. The FAA begins with a warning letter and eventually sends a cease and desist, which it has done 12 times across the country.
What happens next: usually nothing.
Dorr said the FAA has the power to impose fines, but it has done so just two times. Both of those cases were for "careless and reckless operation of an aircraft," not commercial use.
One of those fines, $10,000 against Raphael Pirker, was set aside in March when a federal administrative judge ruled the FAA’s drone rules are just guidelines and aren’t legally enforceable. Pirker was filming with a drone for the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Dorr said the FAA disagrees with and has appealed the decision. While the courts sort it out, he added the administration "can and will continue to enforce the airspace rules on unmanned aircraft."
However, Dorr is unaware of a case when the FAA has pursued penalties against a drone pilot for commercial use.
"Our safety resources are not infinite. So we have to really prioritize our efforts to the operations that appear to pose a risk to other aircraft, or people or property on the ground," he said. "When we find out about what appears to be an unauthorized UAV operation, we’ll investigate it consistent with the amount of resources that we can devote to it."
With the sporadic enforcement and the Pirker case, Lytle said pilots like himself have begun to grow bolder with drone use. With at least one court decision on their side, Lytle isn’t afraid to let people know about his business.
He said he never got into drone photography with the intention of making money, but rather because he loves flying. He routinely waives his fee to fly for student groups and nonprofits, once even flying at a child’s birthday party.
He said that growing up, he was the kind of kid who had more fun on the airplane trip to Florida than he did at Disney World itself, and that he now just wants to share the experience UAVs have to offer.
Even after being told the risks associated with the kind of publicity an article like this could bring, Lytle said he understands where the government has drawn the line and he’s not afraid to wander close to it.
"It wasn’t illegal. There were no laws," Lytle said of his past flights. "It was potentially costly, financially costly. The FAA can fine you.
"There were so many people doing it, it was very much fly-under-the-radar. If for any reason you get too big or too loud, the FAA will send you a cease and desist. … They’re only going to lop off at the neck. So as long as I’m not making more than everyone else, then I’m OK. That’s how I look at it."
Lytle said he has flown about 30 flight assignments with AirHokie.
Since the FAA hasn’t introduced its regulations, Lytle has built his own sort of code that governs his flights and talks first about safety when anyone expresses interest in learning to fly UAVs.
He never flies over people or in places where he can’t control his surroundings. He always runs through a preflight checklist before takeoff and routinely monitors his equipment.
Lytle said he has purchased accidental and liability insurance for AirHokie, so he’s covered for up to $10 million.
Even then, he said, the golden rule in the drone community is that you will crash – as he did recently on a grassy hill just outside of downtown Blacksburg. That time it was a software update that made the controls malfunction.
"I don’t want the FAA to push regulations that hinder anyone getting into this hobby – for business or pleasure," Lytle said. "But something needs to change that enables everyone to educate themselves about the risks and procedures."
Lytle has his opinions on how the technology should be regulated, but he’ll be anxiously waiting just like everyone else to see what the FAA comes up with. If it was up to him, the prerequisites for UAV piloting would be similar to sky diving.
"When you go sky diving, there are certain requirements," Lytle said. "They’ll sit you down, describe what’s going to happen and you’ll go through training. Then you’ll sky dive.
"The FAA, they’re doing their best. … So they clearly want to play ball. I wouldn’t want their job. I have no idea how you regulate some of these rules."