Close encounters between unmanned drones and larger aircraft are on the increase, creating a safety hazard that no longer can be ignored. That makes recent word that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation will create a task force to develop recommendations for the registration of drone aircraft both timely and welcome.
By early August, according to the FAA, pilots had reported more than 650 sightings of unmanned aircraft near airplanes, compared to 238 for all of 2014. The pilots were operating a variety of aircraft, including large commercial airliners. Only 16 such sightings were reported in June of 2014 and 36 in July. This year, drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet were sighted by 138 pilots in June and 137 in July.
Current FAA regulations mandate that model aircraft be flown for “hobby or recreational purposes only.” Drones are not allowed to fly above 400 feet and must stay out of the way of surrounding obstacles. Flying one within five miles of an airport is forbidden, unless contact with the control tower is made.
Recommendations from the new task force are to be completed by Nov. 20 with an aim of putting regulations in place before the Christmas holiday season, when the FAA estimates that around one million drones will be sold. The rules are not expected to apply to inexpensive toy drones, but rather to larger unmanned aircraft capable of reaching higher altitudes. Under consideration is registration for individual pilots and ways to register commercial drones, for which demand is on the increase.
According to the Department of Transportation, irresponsible drone operators have attempted to drop drugs and pornography into prisons, nearly collided with hundreds of large aircraft and directly interfered with firefighting aircraft in California. A drone weighing just a few pounds could cause severe damage and potential loss of lives if it is sucked into an airplane engine or smashes into an airliner’s windshield.
Some may argue that registration proposals represent government overreach and will not prevent irresponsible operators from flying drones in a dangerous way. But registration will increase pressure on drone operators to fly responsibly and establish consequences for those who do not. The task force recommendations will represent a necessary first step toward greater safety in an increasingly-crowded airspace.