After a four-month legal battle, the University of Kentucky law student whose drone crashed in Commonwealth Stadium during a UK football game said he feels exploited by officials looking to make an example out of him.
“In my opinion it’s just an overzealous prosecution,” Peyton Wilson said. “... You know we’re in a small town, drones aren’t very common here, but we’re not talking about a Predator drone, we’re talking about a 7-pound drone with a camera on it. It’s kind of crazy that this happened.”
The 24-year-old from Louisville made national headlines after his DJI Inspire 1 T600 aerial drone crashed inside the stadium before the game against Louisiana-Layfette Sept. 5.
Speaking out for the first time since the crash, Wilson told the Herald-Leader he hopes to apply what he’s learned to benefit others. One lesson: always seek legal counsel.
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“You have a right not to speak. Exercise it,” Wilson said. “It did not benefit me in any way to cooperate.”
A law professor at Cleveland-Marshall inspired Wilson to get into flying unnamed aircraft last year. Over the summer, he applied to get a commercial exemption for the FAA for his new company, Aerora Inc., to eventually sell video shot from a drone.
But he said that on Sept. 5 he was flying the drone over the stadium for fun — his ninth flight over Commonwealth, but the first during a sporting event. A second-year transfer, Wilson had been on campus for less than a month when he launched the ill-fated flight.
There was about 10 seconds there where I didn’t know what to do.
Peyton Wilson, on losing connection to his drone
Wilson showed what he said was raw footage from the drone, which captured images of pregame activities, including the band forming “C-A-T-S.” More than 60,000 fans were filing into the stadium; it would be UK’s first football sellout since 2010.
The drone moved from the center of the stadium to behind a scoreboard as Wilson tried to avoid four parachutists who were landing on the field. (Wilson contends his footage shows that his drone was nowhere near the parachutists, contradicting a campus police report that says the drone came within 25 feet of the parachutists.)
A few minutes later, Wilson lost connection to and control of the drone. But he had taken precautions. The drone had a preprogrammed return flight it would follow if it lost connection, he said. The flight path was supposed to be low enough to avoid nearby helipads while staying high enough to clear the stadium.
“For whatever reason, it did not do that,” he said.
Instead, the drone flew toward the suite patio deck on the south side of the stadium, according to court records. The drone crashed into a glass wall of the patio area occupied by 10 people, according to court records. A patron later told police he was within “four steps” of the crash.
Disconnected, Wilson said he felt a wave of anxiety. He was already heading toward the stadium, trying to get closer to reestablish a connection.
“There was about 10 seconds there where I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Wilson decided to find a University of Kentucky police officer, identifying himself as the drone’s operator and offering to cooperate.
At a meeting with UK police within a week after the crash, Wilson said his backpack, iPad, and drone — for which Wilson had paid $2,500 from his savings — were seized. Police let Wilson recover footage of the fateful flight from his iPad, but the footage cuts off before the crash.
Wilson wound up being charged with wanton endangerment and criminal trespassing. The wanton endangerment charge, which would have carried a penalty of up to a year in jail, was dismissed as part of a plea agreement Wilson signed Wednesday. He pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and paid a $100 fine. A judge agreed to return the backpack, but not the drone or the iPad.
While Wilson said he’s sorry if his drone’s crash scared those nearby, he maintained that the crash didn’t fit the definition of wanton endangerment and said he does not regret the errant flight.
What he did “wasn’t a dangerous thing,” Wilson said. “There is no way that that drone hit anyone on that balcony.”
As of Friday, UK did not have a written policy banning the use of drones. Jay Blanton, a spokesman for UK, said “the resolution of this case and the plea that was made speak for themselves. The university has no additional comment.”
Federal Aviation Association’s regulations are more clear, however.
FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said in an email that while the FAA solely regulates airspace, “property owners are allowed to ban unmanned aircraft from taking off from or landing on their property.”
The FAA in 2007 also banned drones from being used within 3 nautical miles of any stadium holding more than 30,000 people from one hour before to one hour after a sporting event. The restriction includes reckless endangerment and trespassing as possible criminal charges that could be applied to a drone pilot, according to FAA documents.
The FAA could still take action against Wilson, particularly if it’s determined that the September flight was for commercial purposes before he had proper documents. He said he received a “terrifying” letter in November alerting him to an ongoing investigation.
Paradoxically, in December, the FAA granted Wilson an exemption under Section 22 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that allows his drone company to fly for “commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems in tightly-controlled, low risk situations,” according to the FAA. That exemption is one of 2,817 exemptions awarded as of this month.
If Wilson gets the chance to fly a drone on campus or in Commonwealth Stadium again, he said he’ll do it — legally.