Calls for Regulation of Hobbyist Drones Follow Latest Close Encounter Report

By | February 14, 2018

A video from a drone that flew within feet of an airliner over Las Vegas and prompted outrage on the internet has spurred three influential U.S. aviation lobbies to call for tighter regulations on hobby drones.

Legislation exempting certain hobbyist drone pilots from oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration has hampered the aviation agency’s ability to oversee safety of drones, according to a letter sent Monday to lawmakers. The letter was from Airlines for America, a trade group representing large carriers, and the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the unions that represent pilots and controllers.

“We strongly urge you to remove legislative restrictions that have been placed on the FAA that limit its safety oversight of UAS,” the letter said, referring to drones as unmanned aircraft systems. “The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing. By providing the FAA with the full authority to regulate all UAS operations, the safety of passenger and cargo flights will be protected.”

Tense Skies

The letter is part of larger tensions within the civilian drone world as companies including Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. seek tighter controls to ensure orderly skies for delivery flights, while people who view them as high-end toys try to preserve their freedom to fly. It also comes as safety incidents reported by pilots continue to rise.

The FAA is investigating the Las Vegas incident, in which a drone with a camera apparently films an airliner flying directly beneath it at close range, according to an agency statement. The video was posted Feb. 1 by the sUASNews website, but the date it was taken isn’t clear.

An FAA-sponsored study released in November found that drones weighing just a few pounds could cause significant damage to airliner engines, windshields or wings.

The exemption on FAA regulation of hobby drones was cited by a judge in May in a case overturning the agency’s ability to require owners to register their devices. Congress has since reinstated FAA’s drone registration, but hasn’t changed the broader hobbyist exemption.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents model-aircraft flying clubs and lobbied Congress for the exemption, said in a statement that it shares the safety concerns of the other aviation groups. It called on FAA to step up enforcement and do more to educate drone users.

However, the exemption for hobbyists shouldn’t be faulted for the episode, AMA spokesman Chad Budreau said. The actions of the drone operator in Las Vegas weren’t covered by any exemption and were illegal, Budreau added.

“As we have seen with recent incidents like the Las Vegas drone video, some rogue flyers choose to operate in an unsafe manner despite existing drone laws,” he said. “The FAA and local law enforcement must hold these people accountable.”

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