Suddenly, there are drones everywhere

And pilots are reporting ever more close encounters with them

ANYONE in America who found a radio-controlled model aeroplane or multicopter drone nestled beneath the Christmas tree ought by now to have registered it with the Federal Aviation Administration, following mandatory safety requirements introduced on December 21st. More than 45,000 people registered their personal UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the first few days. That is a good start, but still a long way from full compliance.

Registration, which applies only to recreational UAVs, costs $5 (waived for those registering before January 21st) and is good for three years. Existing drone-owners and aeromodellers have until February 19th to comply. If the UAV weighs more than 250 grams (0.55lb) and less than 25kg, owners simply apply for a registration certificate and identification number through the FAA’s website. The UAV has to be marked with the certification number before being flown for the first time. Indoor flights do not count.

The directive makes it an offense for anyone to fly a UAV above 400 feet (122 metres) and within five miles (8km) of an airport, unless special permission is received from the airport tower. Owners must keep their drones or model aircraft within line of sight at all times. Failure to comply can result in civil penalties of up to $27,500.

Unlike amateur UAV owners, organisations wishing to operate drones for commercial purposes still have to apply for special exemption from the FAA’s airworthiness requirements. This is granted on a case-by-case basis for a limited range of activities, including movie making, precision agriculture, and powerline and pipeline inspection. In general, though, commercial operators will have to wait for the FAA to finalise a more comprehensive set of safety rules, possibly in a year or so.

The sudden popularity of drones—and the threat they represent to the public and aviation generally—has spurred the FAA into action. Reports of recreational UAVs interfering with regular air traffic have been running at over 100 a month of late. With some 1.6m recreational drones buzzing the skies (400,000 were expected to be bought in the weeks before Christmas), the FAA has been forced to hurry out safety rules before serious accidents occur.

Though none has to date, the risk of a drone being ingested by a jetliner engine and causing a fatal accident is all too real. Bird strikes are bad enough. One of the most feared birds encountered by aircraft is the common Canada goose, weighing anything up to 6kg. In 2009 a collision with a flock of migratory Canada geese caused a US Airways flight to suffer complete loss of power after takeoff from LaGuardia airport, New York. The bird strike could have easily ended in disaster but for the skill of the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who famously brought the stricken Airbus A320 down for a splash landing in the Hudson River without loss of life. The last thing airline pilots need is an additional hazard caused by UAVs weighing as much or more than a Canada goose.

Over the past year, American pilots have reported some 700 close encounters with UAVs of one sort or another. That pales almost into insignificance when compared with the 13,700 bird strikes in America last year, or the 4,000 or so reports of laser pointers being directed at aircraft. But the number of recreational drones is increasing rapidly. If just one percent of those already in circulation were to cause problems, drone threats would exceed bird strikes by a considerable margin…



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