Team BlackSheep: Rock Stars or Rogue Operators?

Part of what we do is just stir up controversy – just to show what can be done with these drones.

– Raphael Pirker, Team Blacksheep

Team BlackSheep is a group of radio-controlled aircraft pilots that has been energetically pushing the boundaries of aerial videography since 2009. Team BlackSheep was founded in 2009 in Zurich by Swiss drone enthusiast Raphael Pirker — aka “trappy.” He’ll be at DARC, along with his lawyer, Brendan Schulman. More on that in a moment.

Team BlackSheep is known for its YouTube channel, which features a stunning collection of aerial video, all taken with radio-controlled aircraft (small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS, in FAA parlance). The videos are slickly produced in HD, and the drone piloting is first-rate, but that isn’t why Team BlackSheep makes the news. They specialize in audacious guerilla flights over highly populated areas. Their New York City video, in which a Team BlackSheep drone buzzes the Statue of Liberty and zips along the Hudson River, has over a million views.

Not everyone is thrilled with Team BlackSheep’s anarchic approach to aerial videography. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration slapped Pirker with a $10,000 fine for “careless or reckless operation of an aircraft.” It marks the first time a UAS operator has been cited under that provision by the agency.

As their name might suggest, Team BlackSheep is used to being outside the mainstream. The team has been kicked out of several flying clubs, and members have been arrested and detained for questioning in multiple countries. Despite Pirker’s faith in the overwhelming commercial applications of small unmanned aircraft, other entrepreneurs hasten to distance themselves from the envelope-pushing antics of Team BlackSheep.

At this year’s Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco, founders and venture capitalists alike were warned of the dangers posed to the nascent industry by “rogue operations.” The FAA still hasn’t released its guidelines for commercial sUAS operation, and until they do all the enterprises in the room exist in a legal grey zone. An accident, they were warned, could set the American UAS industry back five or ten years — and the U.S. is already behind the curve.

So, what do you think? Is Team BlackSheep being unfairly singled out by the FAA? (They certainly aren’t the only crew making flashy stunt videos in populated areas.) Is everyone overreacting to what is ultimately a harmless hobby? Do amateurs threaten the strength of a domestic UAS industry?

At DARC, come hear Team BlackSheep’s side of the story. Raphael Pirker and the lawyer representing BlackSheep, Brendan Schulman, will be presenting on the work they are doing to defend against the FAA penalty.

Then, join Raphael and Brendan in working groups to draft best practices for aerial videography, safety and security, liability, and more. Or talk to representatives from the FAA and other regulatory bodies about the developing license procedures. Whatever you think needs attention in the flying robots landscape—DARC is a think tank designed for constructive collaboration.

DARC kicks off October 11th, 2013. Register now!

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