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No, you can’t buzz a Navy ship with your drone

The enormous hospital ship USNS Mercy at the Port of Los Angeles is quite a sight to see. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a message for drone photographers: Don’t get too close to see it.

The FAA posted a series of tweets starting late last week warning pilots of the rules of engagement around Navy vessels. The agency points them to a notice that lays out the rules:

All unmanned aircraft are prohibited from flying within a stand-off distance of 3000 ft laterally and 1000 ft above any US navy vessel operating, transiting, or at port within the territorial waters and/or navigable waters of the USA.

And the punishments can be harsh, including confiscation of equipment, fines exceeding $1,400, and even possible jail time. But whether they know (and fear) the law or not, a number of drone pilots are not heeding it.

Drone violations

Phillip Sanfield, spokesman for Los Angeles Port Police, told the Daily Breeze that drones have strayed into the forbidden zone on a daily basis. Sanfield didn’t say whether anyone has been busted yet. But he did announce that enforcement would increase this week, with a dedicated team to pursue violations.

Tensions are high

Tensions have been especially high around the Mercy after a conspiracy theorist tried to attack the ship. Train engineer Eduardo Moreno didn’t believe that the ship had come to take pressure off hospitals that are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients (as its sister ship USNS Comfort is also doing in New York City). To fend off an imagined government plot, Moreno deliberately crashed his locomotive through barriers and plowed under a highway overpass. Luckily the train skidded to a stop more than 250 yards away from the Mercy.

Certainly a drone can’t do anywhere near the damage a runaway train can. But the military and first responders already have enough to worry about with the COVID-19 pandemic. They don’t need the added stress of flying paparazzi. If you really want to get a good look at military vessels, consider a drone with a zoom camera, like the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom.

Image credit: US Navy



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.