It’s not a bird, not a plane: it’s a drone.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called “drones”, are becoming increasingly controversial, as the federal government has not yet completed regulations for them. While discussions continue, commercial use of drones is banned, but hobbyists continue to fly. New data from the FAA shows some are flying in or near airspace used by commercial planes, including some in the Bay Area.
Pilots report sightings of objects while in the cockpit to air traffic control facilities, and the FAA tracks the data. According to the FAA Data, there were 193 UAV sightings by pilots in the US between January and November of 2014. California lead the country with 25 sightings in that time period, followed by New York and Florida.
“It’s unacceptable,” Captain Lee Moak, president of the Airline Pilots’ Association told NBC Bay Area. Captain Moak testified before congress late last year on the dangers of unregulated drones in the US.
“Even one near-miss, if it was a little to the left or a little right, could have a created a larger problem. We need to address this,” Captain Moak said.
Congress has asked the FAA to draw up rules for how, when and where companies can use small drones weighing 55 lbs or less, but the timeline for when that will happen remains undetermined.
“They should not be sharing the airspace, “ Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of a Bay Area UAV company Matternet told the Investigative Unit . “That’s an absolute no-go zone.”
Matternet has not yet started selling UAVs in the US, but the company has worked with countries and organizations overseas to use their devices on humanitarian missions to deliver supplies and medicine to isolated areas.
A video from Papau New Guinea shows a van stuck in the mud, attempting a day-long journey to deliver supplies. The Matternet UAV can perform the same mission in just hours.
While it’s generally legal to fly Matternet UAVs in other countries, that’s not the case yet in the US. Raptopoulos said the company’s number one priority is safety and that his vehicles flying overseas operate at a low altitude below 400 feet where nothing else flies. They use sensors, not cameras, to guide movement.
“There’s been a void of regulation and there’s been some misunderstanding about what is right and what is wrong and that allows all these mishaps to happen,” Raptopoulos said. “I hope that with the FAA rules becoming more robust, that people will understand we shouldn’t be doing careless operations.”
The FAA data shows that many of these sightings have come as commercial planes were either taking off or landing as well as thousands of feet in the air.
One drone, spotted near LAX at 6,500 feet was described as being “trash-can-sized.” Another drone was seen as high as 8,000 feet by a pilot near Burbank as it passed traveling in the opposite direction alongside the plane’s wing.
Another drone sighting was considered a “close call” by the pilot, nearly hitting a plane 4,500 feet above Sausalito.
There was also an incident of a drone spotted only a couple hundred feet off the runway at San Jose Mineta International Airport.
“That’s the main issue, you have seconds to react,” Fred Robinson, a commercial airline pilot, told NBC Bay Area. He and other pilots told the Investigative Unit they worry a drone could cause a serious accident with a commercial jet just like the flock of birds that brought down US Airways Flight 1549 over the Hudson River in 2009.
“When you look at something that is, depending on the type, that’s maybe 2 feet in diameter and it weighs maybe two pounds, that’s hard to spot when you’re in the cockpit,” said Robinson.
“It’s new and a lot of people don’t know what it’s about,” Ziv Marom, CEO of San Francisco-based ZM Interactive told NBC Bay Area.
Marom ‘s company flies drones for entertainment uses. His machines took video in the movie “The Expendables” and for music videos, commercials and YouTube. He said the impression that drones are dangerous is untrue, but that users must be regulated and trained.
“You can buy a car tomorrow morning but if you don’t know how to use it or don’t have a license it can be a pretty dangerous tool,” Marom said. “If you fly, you must follow the safety rules, like anything else. They can be great tools, but they can be pretty dangerous if you don’t use them safely.”
The FAA has posted this written statement:
The FAA is in the process of executing a plan for safe and staged integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System.
The FAA currently receives about 25 reports per month from pilots who have seen unmanned aircraft or model aircraft operating near their aircraft. While many of these sightings are from general aviation or helicopter pilots, airline crews have also reported them. The reports range from unmanned aircraft sightings without impact to other pilots and aircraft, to on a few occasions, pilots altering course to avoid an unmanned aircraft.
In partnership with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the FAA has identified unsafe and unauthorized UAS operations and contacted the individual operators to educate them about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The agency has also issued notices of proposed civil penalties to individuals for unsafe and unauthorized UAS operations.
The FAA is working with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, industry associations, and pilot communities to build awareness of unmanned aircraft safety standards, laws and regulatory requirements and educate users on the safe operation of unmanned aircraft.