Drone dive-bombs an airliner, spurs calls to tighten regulations
A video recorded from a drone that flew within feet of an airliner over Las Vegas, U.S., has prompted three influential U.S. aviation lobbies to call for tighter regulations. This near-miss comes as such safety incidents reported by pilots continue to rise.
Early in February, 2018, multiple media reports emerged of a video circulating the web showing a drone flying disturbingly close to a Frontier Airlines passenger jet as the airliner descended at McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas.
The video, recorded by an unknown drone pilot, was posted on February 1, 2018, by sUAS News, but the date when the video was taken is not clear. The 27-second video shows the drone flying near McCarran airport when a passenger jet approaches towards it from a distance. The drone then rapidly drops towards the airliner from above, as the jet approaches the runway flying directly beneath it at close range.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is currently investigating the incident. The FAA regulations limit unmanned aircraft operators from flying their device to no more than 400 feet unless they are flying within 400 feet of a structure – in that case, the pilot can fly no higher than 400 feet above the top of the structure.
According to regulations, a drone pilot who flies the device unsafely could face fines up to $1,437 per violation, while businesses that fly unsafely can see fines up to $32,666 per violation. In addition, civilians who fly drones unsafely can face federal criminal penalties including fines up to $250,000 with possible imprisonment of up to three years, Global News Canada reports.
Several drone businesses have condemned the incident. Drone U said in a statement for CBS affiliate Las Vegas Now that “This pilot’s actions not only endangered the flying public but has the potential to discredit an entire sUAS industry,” referring to the drone industry.
The necessity of tighter regulations
On February 12, 2018, a letter addressing the issue was sent to U.S. lawmakers from Airlines for America (A4A), a trade association and lobbying group representing the country’s largest airlines, and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the unions that represent pilots and controllers.
According to Bloomberg, the letter urges lawmakers to remove legislative restrictions that have been placed on the FAA that limit its safety oversight of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), saying that “The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing. By providing the FAA with the full authority to regulate all UAS operations, the safety of passenger and cargo flights will be protected.”
The exemption on FAA regulation of civilian drones was cited in the U.S. Court of Appeals in May, 2017, in a case overturning the agency’s requirement for owners to register their devices. The FAA initiated a registry as one of its primary means of ensuring that civilian drones are operated safely after close-calls at some of the largest U.S. airports spiked.
The U.S. Congress has since reinstated drone registration, but has not changed the broader recreational drone use exemption, Bloomberg reports. Legislation exempting certain civilian drone pilots from oversight by the FAA has, in essence, thwarted the agency’s ability to oversee the safety of drones.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which promotes model aviation clubs and lobbied Congress for the exemption, said in a statement that it shares the safety concerns of other aviation groups.
However, the exemption for recreational drone operators should not be blamed for the incident, AMA spokesperson Chad Budreau said, adding that the actions of the drone operator in Las Vegas were not covered by any exemption and were illegal, Bloomberg writes.
“As we have seen with recent incidents like the Las Vegas drone video, some rogue flyers choose to operate in an unsafe manner despite existing drone laws,” Budreau said. According to him, the FAA and local law enforcement must hold such people “accountable”.
Drone collision risks with aircraft
An FAA commissioned study released on November 28, 2017, revealed that small civilian drones can cause significant damage to airliners and business jets in a midair collision. The study concluded that drones colliding with large manned aircraft can cause more structural damage than birds of the same weight for a given impact speed.
Drones weighing just a few pounds could damage airliner engines, windshields or wings. In the report, testing proved the “stiffest components” including the motor, battery or payload can cause the most damage.
Stephen Gaynard, former deputy assistant secretary of state and a retired U.S. Marine colonel, told ABC News the video is concerning. “They have hard pieces. They have lithium-ion batteries that can chew-up an engine and potentially bring an airplane down,” he said.
The results of the government-sponsored study added urgency to FAA’s efforts to improve safety as the industry considers to expand drone operations – from delivering consumer products to performing aerial inspections.
Prior to the study, in 2017, the FAA stated that reports of drone-safety incidents, including flying improperly or coming too close to other aircraft, average about 250 a month, an increase by 50 percent from 2016, Bloomberg wrote at the time.
Recently, on October 12, 2017, a drone collided with a Skyjet plane, carrying 8 passengers, above Jean Lesage International Airport (YQB) in Québec, Canada. The plane landed safely and sustained only a minor damage – the drone struck one of its wings.
Thus, tensions in the civilian drone area continue to intensify as companies ranging from retail to technology giants Amazon and Alphabet are hoping to capitalize on drone technology. They seek tighter controls on civilian drones to ensure their commercial delivery flights and to avoid stricter regulations if collisions become more frequent or catastrophic. Meanwhile, people who purchase drones for personal use want to preserve their freedom to fly.
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