Concerned that pilot reports of drone sightings have already nearly tripled in the first eight months of the year, the FAA stepped up its warnings about potential fines and jail time for unauthorized uses. The agency noted that pilot reports of drone sightings have skyrocketed from 238 in all of last year to 650 through early August this year. It received reports of 16 drones sightings in June 2014 and 36 in July 2014. This year, the number of pilot reports leapt to 138 in June and 137 in July.
The agency said the reports have come from pilots flying a range of aircraft types and many have seen drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet. Recreational unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have interfered with firefighting efforts, approached airliners and helicopters, and injured people on the ground, the FAA added.
The U.S. Forest Service, which has been posting no-drone warnings in firefighting areas, had to issue another appeal after drone flights disrupted wildfire operations at the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California twice in one week. “If a UAS is detected flying over or near a wildfire, we will stop airtankers from dropping fire retardant, helicopters from dropping water, and other aerial firefighting aircraft from performing wildfire-suppression missions until we can confirm that the UAS has left the area and we are confident it won’t return,” said Steve Gage, U.S. Forest Service representative on the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
As attention was drawn to these cases, the FAA released a statement saying it “wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”
The statement marked a shift for the agency, which had hoped to foster safe use through awareness campaigns and educational efforts rather than enforcement actions. While those efforts (including the “Know Before You Fly” campaign) will continue, the agency also is working closely with law enforcement in an effort to curb the growing trends. While the FAA has limited authority over recreational UAS, it does have authority over airspace safety. The agency notes it has levied civil penalties and has “dozens” of open enforcement cases. It also made an appeal to the public to report unauthorized drone activity to local law enforcement.
In the meantime Congress, which has focused on facilitating the accommodation of authorized commercial UAS, has begun to discuss measures to help rein in these incidents. “The new data released by the FAA should sound the alarm,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “During a serious wildfire in California last month, a drone delayed aerial firefighting operations by 20 minutes. The fire then quickly grew and torched several cars when it leapt a highway. Just yesterday in Fresno, a medical helicopter carrying a patient to the hospital missed colliding with a drone by just 20 feet.”
Feinstein pointed to projections that at some point more than one million recreational drones will be flying by year-end. “The FAA has virtually no authority to regulate consumer drones and the effects are clear,” she said. Feinstein and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had introduced legislation in June that would fortify the FAA’s authority over recreational UAS and mandate requirements for new safety features such as collision avoidance software and improved tracking mechanisms.
“We support the FAA’s taking a more aggressive approach to assessing civil penalties against operators violating those rules,” said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The growth of sightings highlights not only the need for stricter enforcement, but also the urgency for the FAA to finalize its small-UAS rules, Mathewson added. “Whether flying a commercial UAS or a model aircraft, there are rules that prohibit careless and reckless operations,” he said. AMA members have safely operated model aircraft for nearly 80 years, he maintained, but added, “Unfortunately, the same is not always true for the legions of new ‘drone’ fliers taking to the skies.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) echoed those sentiments. “The proliferation of irresponsible UAS flights underscores the need for the FAA to finalize its small-UAS rules and more aggressively enforce existing regulations,” said AUVSI president and CEO Brian Wynne. “Stricter enforcement will not only punish irresponsible operators, but it will also serve as a deterrent to others who might misuse the technology.”