Pilot Close Calls With Drones Grow Rapidly, FAA Reports

Close calls of drones flying near airplanes and crowds in the U.S. have surged this year to more than 40 a month.

The Federal Aviation Administration logged 193 cases of safety incidents involving unmanned aircraft in civilian skies from Feb. 22 through Nov. 11, according to data released today. After receiving fewer than 10 cases a month in March and April, the agency got 41 reports in both September and October.

While drones haven’t caused a traditional airplane or helicopter to crash and most cases were simple sightings, in some instances pilots reported “altering course to avoid an unmanned aircraft,” the FAA said in an e-mailed statement.

The data offer a glimpse into the Wild West atmosphere to which the FAA is trying to bring order as the affordability and availability of small, unmanned aircraft creates a new breed of drone operators who haven’t been schooled in aviation safety.

Cases have occurred above the Hollywood sign near Los Angeles, at college football games and at the airport used for President Barack Obama’s flights, Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.

A Republic Airways Holdings Inc. flight heading to New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Sept. 30 “almost hit” a drone near the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, a pilot told the FAA. The plane was a Bombardier Inc. CRJ700 regional jet.

Drones are so easy to buy and fly that users don’t learn the most basic aviation rules used to keep planes from colliding, Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said in an interview.

Regulations Sought

“They still have a two-dimensional mentality in a three-dimensional world,” Barr said. “They really don’t understand the effect that these drones can have on an aircraft.”

The closest calls point to the need for some kind of license proving drone pilots understand how to stay clear of potential danger, he said.

The FAA should move more quickly to draft regulations governing drone flights, the Arlington, Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said in an e-mailed statement.

“In the absence of rules, many people, especially those new to the technology, are unaware of where they can and cannot fly and what they currently can and cannot do,” the trade group said in the statement.

Airline Incidents

The FAA data, made available after a public-records request, is the first comprehensive account of unmanned aircraft safety incidents.

Most of the cases were “unmanned aircraft sightings without impact to other pilots and aircraft,” The FAA said. The increase may be due to growing awareness by pilots and air-traffic controllers, and improved record keeping by FAA, the agency said.

While most of the near mid-air collisions involve smaller private aircraft, airliner cases are also growing. There were 10 reports from airline crews spotting drones from Oct. 1 through Nov. 11, according to the data.

Airline pilots near Trenton, New Jersey, and Wichita, Kansas, reported seeing drones flying nearby on Nov. 11.

The FAA’s legal authority to regulate civilian unmanned flights was upheld on Nov. 18 by the National Transportation Safety Board, overturning a decision by an administrative judge to throw out the agency’s first attempt to fine a drone operator.

Drone Education

The agency said today it has been contacting drone operators, sometimes after being notified by U.S. and local law enforcement agencies, “to educate them about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws.”

The agency and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating two reports by airline pilots on Nov. 16 who said they flew near drones while preparing to land at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and a third case near the airport on Nov. 19. The three flights landed safely, according to an FAA statement.

Those reports aren’t contained in the data released today by the FAA.

A separate database of voluntary pilot safety reports compiled by NASA includes four cases in which drones were spotted by airline or corporate aircraft pilots from March through September.

Recreational Drones

The FAA, following laws imposed by Congress, has attempted to oversee drones with a patchwork of different policies.

Purely recreational drone flights are permitted as long as operators stay away from traditional aircraft and get permission from controllers before taking off within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of an airport. Hobby groups, such as the Muncie, Indiana-based Academy of Model Aeronautics, suggest unmanned aircraft stay within 400 feet of the ground.

The FAA hasn’t approved drone flights for commercial purposes, except for an exemption granted to six Hollywood movie makers and two oil companies in the Arctic region of Alaska. A proposed rule allowing commercial flights is scheduled to be revealed by the end of the year.

Government agencies, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection or local law enforcement agencies, may also obtain FAA permission to fly drones under a separate process.

The FAA has faced conflicting demands from lawmakers, privacy advocates and the unmanned aircraft industry.

Even as a Congress-imposed deadline to begin integrating drones into U.S. skies by August 2015 nears, lawmakers such as Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, have sought greater restrictions on their use to protect privacy.

Five senators, including Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, wrote the FAA yesterday seeking swifter action on writing drone rules and granting approvals for flights at six test ranges approved this year by the agency.

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