WASHINGTON – Civilian drones are flying so close to airplanes so frequently that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is receiving almost one incident report a day.
The FAA logged 193 cases of safety incidents involving unmanned aircraft from Feb. 22 through Nov. 11, according to data released by the agency Wednesday. The incidents include drones that got too close to conventional aircraft or to people at public events.
“The FAA currently receives about 25 reports per month from pilots who have seen unmanned aircraft or model aircraft operating near their aircraft,” the agency said in a statement.
In a few cases, pilots have had to take evasive action to avoid the drones, the agency said. The data offer a glimpse into the Wild West atmosphere the FAA is trying to bring order to as the affordability and availability of small, unmanned aircraft creates a new breed of drone operators who haven’t been schooled in aviation safety.
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.
The agency 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 said.
While most of the cases of near midair collisions reported by the FAA involve smaller private aircraft, incidents involving airliners are also growing.
The agency and the FBI 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.
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.
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 conventional aircraft and get permission from controllers before taking off within 5 miles (8 km) 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 Sen. 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 Tuesday 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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