Why Drones Could Cause the Next Mid-Air Disaster
Policy + Politics

Why Drones Could Cause the Next Mid-Air Disaster

  • Pilots and air traffic controllers have reported a string of close calls.
  • The FAA has yet to finalize its rules for private and commercial drones.
  • Dozens of companies have sought permission to fly drones.

Over the past seven months, airline pilots have reported 25 near-collisions with errant domestic drones, and they have spotted roughly 150 other cases of drones in air space off limits to them.

Air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport in New York reported on Sept. 30 that Republic Airlines Flight 6230 was nearly hit by a small drone at an altitude of 4,000 feet as the passenger plane was descending to land, according to The Washington Post. On Sept. 8 at LaGuardia, three different regional airliners — Express Jet, Pinnacle and Chautauqua — reported “very close calls” with a drone within minutes of one another at an altitude of about 2,000 feet as they were preparing to land.

Related: Drones Pose Fresh Threat to Commercial Flight Safety 

Rather than setting off alarm bells at the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency appears to be facilitating the burgeoning commercial use of drones – and partly at the bidding of Hollywood.

At the same time the agency was getting harrowing reports of near misses between passenger planes and remote-controlled mini-planes throughout the country, the FAA in September granted permission to six Hollywood filmmakers to fly drones on movie sets in what one top transportation official described as blazing a new trail.

If a drone can carry a 20-pound camera, it can also carry a 20-pound explosive that could be detonated by remote control.

As Craig Whitlock of The Post reported Sunday, the decision to grant the production wishes of Hollywood were made over the strenuous objections of some FAA safety inspectors, who had warned after a formal review that the filmmakers ‘plans were too risky to allow.

Sure enough, last Wednesday a 20-pound, camera-laden drone operated by one of the filmmakers, Pictorvision, veered off a set in in California and disappeared, according to an FAA report. The company’s president said the crew members found the drone the following day in rugged terrain on a private ranch about 100 yards from where the crew was filming near Santa Clarita.

Related: Congress Enraged by the FAA’s $40B White Elephant

The FAA has been swamped with nearly 200 applications from a broad range of industries and commercial ventures for permission to fly drones and it expects to receive plenty more in the coming months. Congress has instructed the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace by September 2015, but the understaffed agency is unlikely to meet that deadline for regulating drones weighing up to 55 pounds.

Until it finalizes its rules, the FAA has cobbled together a patchwork of interim guidelines. For instance, businesses are prohibited from flying drones without special approval, while so-called “recreational drone flights are permitted provided the miniature aircraft stay below 400 feet and five miles away from an airport.

It may take a mid-air catastrophe to get the FAA’s and Congress’s attention.

But as we have seen, many drone operators have ignored strictures against flying too close to airports and stadiums. And the public dangers are obvious. If a drone can carry a 20-pound camera, it can also carry a 20-pound explosive that could be detonated by remote control.

For now, James H. Williams, the head of the FAA’s unmanned-aircraft integration office, insists that the agency always puts safety first. He said earlier this year that writing rules for the U.S. is complex because this country has far more air traffic than anywhere else and a greater variety of aircraft. He told the Dallas Morning News that at low altitudes, there is a concern that drones could collide with a helicopter or small plane flown by a recreational pilot.

Related: 12 Weird Uses for Drones

Yet last month – remarkably – the agency hired a lobbyist for Hollywood filmmakers and other companies interested in utilizing drones to suggest ways to speed up the approval process.

After the Post raised the issue with the FAA, the agency acknowledged that the arrangement constituted a conflict of interest and ended the contract last week.

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