WASHINGTON – On a Saturday night in early December, Chinese exchange student Owen Ouyang went out to the front yard of his Martinez, Calif., home and launched a sleek new drone he had recently bought for about $1,000.
The 2.8-pound drone, advertised as “easy to fly,” proved anything but. Soon after takeoff, the drone veered dangerously toward a power line. It then climbed more than 700 feet – right into the path of a California Highway Patrol helicopter. A head-on collision was averted only after the chopper’s crew made a sharp right-hand turn at the last moment.
The harrowing episode illustrates a growing safety concern as more and more drones, particularly ones used for recreation, take flight into the national airspace. Their popularity is booming in the United States, with sales of drones that weigh more than a half-pound expected to reach 1 million this year. At the same time, critics fear that the chances of a catastrophic collision with a manned aircraft – possibly even a commercial jetliner – also are soaring.
“If we don’t act now, it’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a news release last June.
Debate over safety
Some critics focus the blame on the companies that market drones for recreational use, which can sell from under $100 to $3,000 or more. These drones, like Ouyang’s device, can zoom to impressive altitudes but, the critics say, usually lack the navigation and communications systems and design quality needed to ensure safe flying.
Paul Hudson, president of the airline passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org, said drone industry lobbyists had succeeded in coaxing the Federal Aviation Administration to grant “a de facto waiver of basic aircraft regulations to drone makers and sellers.”
Industry officials say fears are overblown and that they already are adding new safety features. “The record we have to date should speak for itself,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, the Chinese drone company that dominates the recreational market. “The recreational drone world has tens of millions of operational hours, I would estimate, and not a single fatality.”
Still, Feinstein, along with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing legislation to give the FAA broad authority to regulate hobbyists who fly drones. The measure also would direct the aviation agency to require manufacturers of drones built for recreation or business to add safety features such as limits on how high, or where, their devices can fly.
The bill’s supporters include Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the retired airline pilot famed for successfully executing an emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009 when his aircraft was disabled after striking a flock of geese.
In an October 2015 news release from Feinstein’s office, Sullenberger said: “The huge upsurge in the numbers of drones and of reckless actions by drone users has greatly increased the risk to everyone who flies.”
Feinstein has vowed to press her case during the debate over the reauthorization of FAA programs that Congress is scheduled to take up in March. The industry appears ready to put up a fight, although much of its focus is on pending regulations for operators of commercial drones.
The Small UAV Coalition – which includes manufacturers such as DJI, along with Amazon, Google X and Intel – spent $890,000 last year lobbying Congress and federal agencies. That was four times the coalition’s spending on lobbying in 2014, when it was founded, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicles, another name for drones.
Already, worrisome incidents abound. A report released in December by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone identified 327 “close encounters” between drones and manned aircraft over a 21-month period that ended last September. That included 51 cases in which the drones and conventional aircraft came within 50 feet of each other, and 28 incidents in which a pilot maneuvered to avoid a collision.
Regulation has been slow to come, however. Aside from a federal registration requirement announced in December, recreational drone users have operated largely under voluntary FAA guidelines dating to 1981 for model aircraft. The guidelines, among other things, say users should limit flying to 400 feet aboveground.
But there are no requirements for operators to be trained or for their drones to have FAA certification. The FAA can fine those who fly recklessly, but the agency has rarely used that authority.
Among the harshest critics is W. Hulsey Smith, chief executive of Aero Kinetics, a Fort Worth, Texas, company that sells sophisticated commercial drones that cost $10,000 or more to automate tasks such as inspecting cellphone towers or refineries. He calls most recreational drones “toys” and says their manufacturers should be using higher-quality designs and installing better navigation and communications systems.
“There is no reason for them to wait to adopt these basic principles of safety other than for greedy profit,” Smith said. These companies, he added, are “putting the public at risk, both in the air and on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the FAA issued a proposal last February that would ease standards for small drones used for commercial purposes such as aerial photography, power-line surveillance and crop monitoring. The agency said it expected to issue the final rule by late this spring.
The amount of damage a drone can inflict on a commercial or another manned aircraft remains speculative because there’s little or no data on the issue. The FAA only recently began research on the collision hazards posed by drones. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency hoped to get some findings by September.
This story was reported by FairWarning (fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization that specializes in public health, safety and environmental issues.