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Is this 'Cecil the Lion' drone photo worth $55,000?

Anyone good at estimating heights? Does this feel like 250 feet up? Or more like 400 feet?

Anyone good at estimating heights? Does this feel like 250 feet up? Or more like 400 feet?

Mical Caterina was just trying to do his part.

The killing of Cecil the Lion, famed Zimbabwean beast-cum-tourist attraction, set off rage and protest from animal lovers across the globe. Plenty of it happened right here in the Twin Cities, this being the home of Walter Palmer, the Bloomington-based dentist who pulled the trigger.

Last August, Caterina, an audio engineer and amateur drone pilot, was asked to help record a demonstration in St. Paul, where dozens of Cecil supporters formed a "human chain" — or, as Cecil might've thought of it, a "buffet" — outside the Conway Community Center. Caterina was recruited to send up a drone and document the moment.

According to the Daily Signal, Caterina was warned ahead of time by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency was abreast of his plan to fly overhead, and, according to the Daily Signal, sent a letter to the event organizer, Caterina's friend, outlining, somewhat ominously, the differences between an "unmanned aircraft system" (a drone) and a "model aircraft" (a toy).

Caterina says he tried reaching the FAA for clarification, to no avail, and went ahead with his unmanned mission anyway. Here's his people-as-Cecil photo from above.

Not bad! Caterina says he provided that shot and others to the Star Tribune, free of charge, so long as it helped spread awareness of the issue. It probably didn't hurt. The downside is, some of that awareness got to the FAA, which soon informed the Eden Prairie resident that the incident was under investigation.

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Caterina sent a reply, clarifying that his flight "was not performed commercially or for monetary gain, I did NOT fly near or directly over participants other than myself, I stayed well below the 400ft ceiling as prescribed by FAA." And that, he thought, was that. Please have your robot return its traytable to the upright and locked position.

But no. This spring, the FAA soon issued  a subpoena to Caterina, requesting all the drone photographs and videos he'd taken and published, among other information. He complied, and next thing he heard, the agency had sent him a letter of admonition. His drone had come within 100 feet of a television helicopter, the FAA said (Caterina denies this claim), and within three miles of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (Caterina denies); furthermore, it was not done for "hobby or recreational purposes." According to Caterina, he never received a dime for his photograph, because the shoestring protest operation he was helping out didn't even have a dime to give.

The fine for his alleged malfeasance? A whopping $55,000 — coincidentally, the exact same amount Walter Palmer was said to have paid for the rights to wipe Cecil the Lion off the planet. 

Caterina responded in May, writing to the FAA that he intends to challenge its fine in U.S. District Court. He adds that the experience turned him skittish, and says he hasn't flown his drone since November. 

"I kept going through my head asking what did I actually do wrong," Caterina told the Signal. "I did a favor for a friend of a friend." 

And for Cecil. If the FAA fines stick, maybe people should form a human chain with Mical Caterina's face. But then, how would they know what it looks like from above?