Ryan Felner has many interests.
The Staples High School sophomore is on the tennis team. He’s taking AP courses. He loves photography, and making and editing videos. For the past 2 years, he’s developed websites for family and friends.
A year and a half ago — when the price of drones dropped and the market soared — Ryan started researching options. His parents agreed to fund half a DJI drone. He agreed to work, and pay back his half.
He followed Federal Aviation Administration rules, registering his drone as a Small Unmanned Aircraft System. He agreed to fly below 400 feet; not fly within a 5-mile radius of any airport, and always keep his drone in sight.
Ryan started taking beautiful photos and creating gorgeous videos, including the beach and — during family sailing trips — the New England coast. (Click here to see his website.)
His photos of his own house — with Compo Beach and the Sound in the background — were fantastic. That gave him the idea to reach out to real estate brokers, offering to shoot for them (free at first).
Word got out. He spent most of last summer taking real estate photos.
Owenoke Park, from Ryan Felner’s drone.
The Norwalk Hour ran a big story — “Student’s Drone Photography Business Takes Off” — last October. He was thrilled…
…until later that night, when he saw the comments. The story had been picked up by drone enthusiast sites. People posted harsh messages, saying what Ryan did was illegal.
Apparently, the FAA had released new regulations a few weeks earlier. To “Fly for Work,” a drone operator had to possess a Remote Pilot Certificate, and be 16 years old.
There were a few supportive comments. Some people noted that — like many operators — Ryan probably did not know about the new rules.
But he was horrified. He woke his parents, who were upset they’d allowed the situation to happen.
The next day, things got worse.
Richard Aarons — a volunteer counselor with the FAA’s safety team — emailed him. He told Ryan to contact him ASAP — and warned him he could face huge fines.
Ryan panicked. He was scared about the money. He worried his reputation was ruined for life. He feared for college, and beyond.
His parents helped him respond. Ryan said he was devastated to be out of compliance with regulations. He promised to cease all commercial operations immediately, and said he’d wait until his 16th birthday to take his pilot’s exam and apply for a proper license.
Aarons’ response was fantastic. He told Ryan he completely understood what happened, and said he was now doing exactly the right thing.
Aarons forwarded the emails to Marilyn Pearson, an aviation safety inspector with the FAA Unmanned Aircraft System division. She’d been working hard to educate drone enthusiasts, while implementing the new regs. She too commended Ryan for the way he’d communicated with the authorities.
Ryan Felner with his drone, on Martha’s Vineyard.
As Ryan’s 16th birthday approached, he contacted Pearson and Aarons. Both offered to help, if there was something he didn’t understand as he studied for his FAA exam.
On Tuesday at Sikorsky Airport, Ryan passed his FAA Remote Pilot Knowledge test with a very high score of 87.
Two days later — yesterday — he turned 16.
And tomorrow at 12 noon, in the Westport Library’s McManus Room, Ryan will give a talk at the Maker Faire. His subject: “Adventures of a 16-Year-Old Drone Pilot.”
But wait! There’s more!
When Pearson heard about Ryan’s speech, she was so excited, she said she’d come down from Hartford for it.
So before his talk — at the 9:45 a.m. Maker Faire opening ceremony, in the Taylor parking lot — she will present him with his Remote Pilot Airman Certificate.
Ryan’s spirits are sure to be sky high.
Right up there with his drone. And the possibilities for his great, professional — and now completely legal — business.