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Drone Industry Insiders Frustrated by Yet Another Unreliable Drone Sighting Report, This Time at Newark Airport in New Jersey

BY Isabella Lee
30 January 2019

Reports of possible drone sightings temporarily halted flights at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey last week on Tuesday, January 22. However, the reports have yet to be confirmed, and some are suspecting the sightings weren’t drones at all.

newark airport new jersey

A United flight lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

The FAA received two reports of possible drone sightings at 3,500 feet near Newark Airport last Tuesday around 4:45 p.m. The first report came from a Southwest pilot and the second from a United pilot. Arriving flights were briefly halted, but normal operations resumed shortly after as no further drone sightings were reported.

Was it a Drone at All?

Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs, pointed out on Twitter that the conditions under which the pilots spotted the alleged drones are not credible. Drones are not allowed to fly over 400 feet without permission from the FAA, and most drones do not operate well in temperatures below freezing.

Drone industry insiders are frustrated with the increasing number of reports that drones are shutting down airports with little to no proof that drones were actually involved.

Be Cautious When Evaluating Drone Incident Reports From Public Media

After the flight delays at Newark Airport, media outlets were quick to publish headlines such as “Newark Airport Drone Disruption Could Be Way of the Future,” from NBC News and “Drone Sightings, Near-Miss with Plane Spark Delays at Newark Airport,” from CBS New York. Headlines such as these falsely portray drone incidents at airports as a regular occurrence that can be counted on to occur again in the future.

In reality, to date, only one drone sighting involving manned aircraft (reported by an Army helicopter pilot in 2017) has been confirmed. Describing the Newark incident as a “near-miss” is also an exaggeration that only promulgates the public’s fear of drones causing fatal plane crashes, which has never happened.

Drone manufacturer DJI recently issued a statement urging caution when evaluating reports of drone incidents, pointing out that past reports of drone sightings at airports actually turned out to be other objects including a plastic bag, a bat, and a balloon.

DJI urges caution in evaluating initial reports of drone incidents, because many of them turn out to be wrong. The true culprits have included a plastic bag (UK, 2016), structural failure (Mozambique, 2017), a bat (Australia, 2017) and a balloon (New Zealand, 2018). While there have been isolated cases of drones being flown improperly, drones have amassed an admirable safety record around the world, and the overwhelming majority of drone pilots want to fly safely and responsibly.

—Adam Lisberg, DJI Corporate Communication Director

It’s Still Our Responsibility to Report Drones Flying Dangerously

Fingers aren’t to be pointed at those calling in to report what they think may be suspicious activity by a drone. Unauthorized and rogue drones operated outside of the parameters set by FAA regulations could pose a real safety threat and should indeed be reported.

Newark Air Traffic Control Tower

The Newark Airport air traffic control tower. Photo by formulanone via Flickr.

The pilots who reported the drone sightings at Newark were guarding the safety of their passengers and responded appropriately. Reporting illegal drone operators is a topic that comes up time and again, and it’s a safety issue we’ve discussed with drone pilots before on our community forum and in a past blog post.

According to the FAA, anyone who sees a drone operated in a dangerous manner should report it to their local law enforcement:

If you witness a drone operation that appears dangerous or is being used to commit a crime please report it to your local law enforcement. This helps the FAA and your local law enforcement discourage dangerous, illegal activity involving drones. Unauthorized drone operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.

The pilots who reported the possible drone sightings at Newark to the FAA were not in the wrong. Rather, the frustration is directed toward the haste with which public media pins reports of any object spotted near an airport on drones before the sightings are confirmed.

Creating Real Solutions for Real Drone Sightings

What these alleged drone sightings do provide is an opportunity to address how the FAA plans to prevent genuine drone sightings from interfering with air traffic in the future. The FAA is working on technology, such as remote identification, unmanned air traffic systems, and counter UAS systems, to prevent these instances from occurring in the future.

And as the number of registered drones in the U.S. reaches nearly 1.3 million and our air space becomes more complex, how to regulate, manage, and track drones becomes more of a pressing issue. These technologies are not being created as quickly as some would hope, and the increase in reported drone sightings is only driving up our impatience.

The FAA is actively searching for partners to help them develop a remote identification system that they can implement in the national air space, and many companies have already developed prototype remote ID systems. However, it could be years before we see this technology put into place. The same goes for counter UAS systems—the technology exists, but the legal framework for implementing them lags behind.

Head over to our community forum to share your thoughts on the alleged drone sightings at Newark Airport and your ideas about how the drone industry can prevent these types of incidents from occurring in the future.

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