FAA can enforce queries into viral ‘weaponized’ drone videos

July 25, 2016

A no drone sign warning sign from the Federal Aviation Administration is seen outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio

The FAA’s “no drone zone” warning sign outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio

A Connecticut father and son must comply with the Federal Aviation Agency’s investigative subpoenas seeking information regarding videos the son allegedly posted to YouTube showing “weaponized” unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, outfitted with handguns and flame-throwing contraptions.

The FAA has a legitimate purpose to investigate the videos Austin Haughwout allegedly posted to YouTube, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer of the District of Connecticut said.

The agency has the power to regulate aircraft, which Congress broadly defines as any device invented, used or designed to navigate or fly in the air, Judge Meyer said.

It also has the authority to ensure that no person operates an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner that could possibly endanger life or property, the judge added.

“There can be no dispute that the weaponized devices shown on the YouTube videos at least give rise to questions about possible danger to life or property,” Judge Meyer wrote, allowing the agency’s investigation to move forward.

Weaponized videos go viral

According to the ruling, the Haughwouts live in Clinton, Connecticut, a small town without an airfield or airport nearby.

In 2015 a YouTube user by the name of “Hogwit” posted two videos on YouTube — “Flying Gun” and “Roasting the Holiday Turkey.”

As of July 22, the videos are still available online at http://bit.ly/2a3PMLL and http://bit.ly/29X7gvR.

“Flying Gun” shows a small drone flying in a wooded area. A semiautomatic handgun mounted to the flying device fires a few times in the 14-second clip, according to the ruling.

“Roasting the Holiday Turkey” also takes place in a wooded area. The ruling described it as showing a small flying device with eight motors and an attached “flame-throwing contraption” roasting a turkey on a spit.

The flame-throwing contraption spews “intense streams of fire,” the ruling said.

“At times, the tendrils of flame reach out 20 feet or so in length, and they ignite not only the turkey carcass but also wood debris on the ground below it,” Judge Meyer said.

FAA subpoenas ‘Hogwit’

After the videos went viral, the FAA traced the “Hogwit” YouTube account to Austin Haughwout, the ruling said.

The agency subpoenaed Haughwout and his father, Bret, who had corresponded with the FAA on his son’s behalf, Judge Meyer said.

The FAA sought any information regarding:

  • The use of an unmanned aircraft system and the brand, models, description or identifying data of the UAS used in the two videos.
  • The purchase or use of a flamethrower and a UAS.
  • Any aerial photographs or videography projects they conducted using a UAS.
  • Internet advertising revenues or compensation received from posting UAS videos or content to YouTube or other video-sharing sites.
  • Contact information for all persons present during the production of the “Flying Gun” and “Roasting the Holiday Turkey” videos.

The Haughwouts refused to respond to the subpoenas.

Despite Congress’ broad definition, they argued the devices were not “aircraft” subject to the FAA’s regulation.

Judge Meyer disagreed.

The FAA has the authority to investigate further, the judge said, noting the Haughwouts’ arguments may have more weight in a penalty enforcement action for flying drones on their own property.

“It seems clear to me that Congress intends for the FAA to regulate at least some drones owned by individuals,” the judge said, finding the agency had a legitimate interest to investigate further.

Judge Meyer gave the Haughwouts 30 days to respond to the subpoena unless the parties agreed upon another date.

He also noted his ruling did not prejudice any argument the Haughwouts may make about their constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.

Huerta v. Haughwout et al., No. 16-cv-358, 2016 WL 3919799 (D. Conn. July 18, 2016).