This Kid Got Assaulted for Flying His Drone on a Beach

This is what happens when an entire technology is vilified.

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Jun 9 2014, 5:00pm
Image: YouTube screengrab

Regardless of the hobby's legality, flying drones have been a touchy subject with some members of the public—namely, those worried about being filmed or photographed in public. In at least one case, that fear has turned violent: A woman was recently arrested in Connecticut for assaulting a hobby drone pilot.

The whole thing, naturally, was captured on tape, which was originally posted by the pilot, Austin Haughwout, but has since been taken down by YouTube. Part of the video has made its way over to LiveLeak, which you can watch here:

As you'll see, the woman, who is identified in arrest reports as Andrea Mears, is shown calling the police—she says that Haughwout is "taking pictures of people on the beach" with a "helicopter plane." Mears then attacks Haughwout, rips his shirt, and appears to get him in a leg lock. She puts her fingers in his mouth, and they exchange some words.

"I'm going to beat your ass you little motherfucker," she shouts at one point. 

"I had flown at that location three or four times with no problems,"  Haughwout told me. "Most people are shocked by it—they think she's crazy."

In the end, Mears was arrested for third degree assault and breaking the peace, both misdemeanors. As you can imagine, the experience was pretty jarring for Haughwout. 

"I have flown since, but much less than before," he said. "I always have the camera going on my phone now. It's definitely turned me off from flying as much as I used to." 

It'd be naive to think that drones don't pose some privacy risks—anytime you can film video or take pictures remotely, there's going to be that concern. And there have been instances of people using drones to peep on their sunbathing neighbors and that sort of thing. But it's extremely important to remember that it is not illegal to fly a drone, and it is not illegal to take photos in a public place, whether that camera is on a drone or not. 

I haven't seen anything this extreme before—violence is certainly uncommon, but harassment isn't. Anti-drone sentiment is everywhere in internet comment sections. On hobbyist forums and Facebook hobby groups, there are dozens of stories of people who have been told to stop flying by passersby and by police who don't know the law:

In fact, a Michigan-based drone pilot named Jonathan Hair posted the following video this weekend, in which he was forced to stop flying by police despite there being no regulation against it in the park in which he was flying.  

"The initial complaint was made because of a privacy concern, but I think that morphed into a public safety issue once the police realized I was in a public area," Hair told me. "I don't think anything would have come from this had the woman [who made the initial complaint] not been paranoid about drones." 

Hopefully, both pilots and observers will use common sense in the future—this could remain an isolated incident, but if drones continue to be looked at as an instrument of surveillance, and the media continues to report on them as if they are something to be feared, it almost certainly won't be. To some extent, we've seen the same thing happen with Google Glass

In the original cut of the video, Haughwout included both his cell phone's video and the video being shot from his drone. That footage showed that the beach was nearly deserted and that his drone was several hundreds of feet in the air, where no person could reasonably be identified—let alone get "spied on." In a forum post that alerted me to the situation last month (Haughwout held out on posting the video until Mears was arraigned), Haughwout says he never flew below 50 feet, "save for take off/landing."

There are two sides to every story—and I'm sure we'll hear Mears' side in court—but it's a shame that YouTube has since taken down Haughwout's original video. I watched it late Friday night, before YouTube removed the segment for containing content designed to "harass, bully, or threaten."

Here's the video he took that day. The beach is empty (though there's one crazy dude in the water), and you certainly can't identify any people—take a look: