Goldsboro man takes on state regulatory board after it costs him chunk of his drone photography business

North Carolina

GOLDSBORO, N.C. (WNCN) – Drones are supposed to make some aspects of people’s lives easier. For one Goldsboro photographer, though, his made his life tougher after he ran afoul of state regulators.

Now he’s fighting back.

Michael Jones has been doing aerial photography by drone for the past five years, growing his business by seeking out new opportunities.

At one point, 360 Virtual Drone Service offered roof inspections, parking lot pavement inspections, and photos of land and construction projects under development.

Now, a state board has grounded his drone for those kinds of flying. It said he’s flying in the face of some of the board’s regulations.

Because Jones’ drone is restricted to shooting at 400 feet or lower under the guidelines of his license, he used that to his advantage by shooting locations his clients requested until the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors found out what he was doing.

“When the board came after me, it scared me, so I put a halt to my services,” Jones said.

The board sent an investigator out to talk with Jones. It later sent him a cease-and-desist letter threatening civil and criminal prosecution for surveying without a license.

“What I was doing was for visual purposes,” he said. “I would offer no measurements. I only did visual representations for my clients.” 

Since his drone could only fly at 400 feet, he couldn’t get large swaths of land in his image. He’d have to take individual photos and stitch them together with software that read the metadata embedded in those pictures. The board said that, too, was a violation, even though Jones told clients with a written disclaimer they couldn’t use those images for legal or surveying purposes. 

“They actually told me the disclaimer was void; it didn’t matter,” he said.

That prohibition against photo stitching also killed things like his roof inspection and parking lot inspection business.

So Jones fought back after losing at least 20 percent of his business. He filed a lawsuit in federal court with the help of the Institute of Justice.

Its argument is simple: what Jones is doing is legal because it’s a First Amendment right. 

“Taking photos of land and sharing data is speech pure and simple,” said attorney Sam Gedge with the Institute for Justice. “For that reason, Michael has a First Amendment right to engage in that speech.”

CBS 17 wanted to know the reasoning behind the board’s actions and sought a reaction to the lawsuit. Last week, Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia sent the board an email asking it to comment. As of Tuesday, the board has not replied.

Jones’ attorney believes the board is overreaching in its prohibitions.

“They’ve taken a vague and broad view of what they think is regulated by surveying.”

It could take up to a year for the case to be heard by the court, so in the meantime, Jones’ drone business will be flying with at least one blind eye.

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