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Let’s Fast Track Rogue Drone Investigations: Why Recent Reports of Drone Collisions, Reckless Flying Need to Be Investigated Quickly

BY Zacc Dukowitz
26 February 2018

Recently we’ve seen some alarming incidents with rogue drones, and we are growing really, really worried.

Wondering what we’re talking about? Here’s a list of recent incidents:

  • On February 14, a DJI Phantom reportedly contributed to the crash landing of a helicopter in Charleston, SC.
  • On February 12, a drone collided with a helicopter in Kauai.
  • In early February, a video surfaced of a drone flying dangerously close to an airplane in Las Vegas, NV.
  • On September 21, a DJI Phantom 4 collided with a Black Hawk helicopter that was providing security for the president over Staten Island, forcing it to land.

The incident in Charleston on February 14th seems to be the first time that a rogue drone has been linked to a helicopter crashing on U.S. soil (although the AMA is asking the public not to jump to conclusions, and to wait for the outcome of a full investigation).

Image source

Thankfully, no one has been hurt, but it would be nice to see quick, decisive action from the FAA when it comes to investigating incidents like these and determining whether wrongdoing took place.

Back in September, when a drone crashed into a Black Hawk over New York City, former chief counsel for the FAA Kenneth Quinn had this to say in a Bloomberg News story on the topic:

This incident reveals a soft underbelly of drone safety: we’re putting very sophisticated drones in the hands of unsophisticated operators, with no training, certificates, or knowledge requirements.

In December, the FAA issued a report on UAS remote tracking that has some solid proposals to help to identify and track drone pilots, which will ultimately help keep the skies safe for everyone—responsible drone pilots, as well as pilots of other kinds of aircraft.

But these proposals are far from being implemented. While it’s true that DJI’s Aeroscope can provide some information on who’s flying what, their data is limited to those who opt-in, and besides, this data really needs to reside with, and be generated by, the FAA.

After a Las Vegas video surfaced in early February of a drone flying recklessly close to an airplane—a video that is truly terrifying to watch—drone industry stakeholders penned an open letter to the FAA.

The video of that Las Vegas flight

The letter was signed by a long list of drone industry groups:

  • The Academy of Model Aeronautics
  • Aerospace Industries Association
  • Aerospace States Association
  • Commercial Drone Alliance
  • Consumer Technology Association
  • Drone Manufacturers Alliance
  • Drone User Group Network
  • General Aviation Manufacturers Association
  • Helicopter Association International
  • National Association of State Aviation Officials
  • National Press Photographers Association
  • The Small UAV Coalition

Here is the full text of the letter that was addressed to acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell.

Dear Administrator Elwell:

We are deeply concerned about a recent video that was posted on the internet that shows an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flying directly above an airliner making its final approach at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport.

This action by the UAS operator was not just irresponsible and in clear violation of both the FAA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft, 14 CFR, 101, Subpart E and Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Administration regulations, but it also endangered the airspace and created the real risk of a midair collision with a passenger jet.

This careless and reckless behavior endangers the safety of our airspace for all users—both manned and unmanned. We urge the FAA to use its full authority to investigate, identify, and apprehend the operator of this UAS flight and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. We also encourage the FAA to work with law enforcement in Las Vegas and Nevada to pursue all applicable charges within their authority.

Strict enforcement will not only punish the operator responsible for this unacceptable and reprehensible action, it will also serve as a deterrent to others for misusing UAS technology and create accountability among UAS operators. Collaboratively, our organizations will continue to educate UAS operators about where they should and should not fly to help prevent similar incidents in the future. We will also continue to work closely with the FAA to develop and deploy remote identification and tracking to ensure our airspace remains safe and secure.

We completely agree.

Incidents like these could lead to serious backsliding in the general public’s perception of drones, not to mention real harm. At a time when the public image of drones has finally started to turn a corner, and people are starting to become aware of all the good drones can do, we can’t afford to let a few bad actors hold the entire industry back.

As the letter above reads, strict enforcement will not only punish the operator responsible for this unacceptable and reprehensible action, it will also serve as a deterrent to others for misusing UAS technology and create accountability among UAS operators.

We need to punish those rogue drone pilots found guilty quickly and to the fullest extent of the law, so that others will become aware of the consequences in place for this kind of flying, and think twice.

We also need to work even harder in the drone industry to educate all drone owners—hobbyists and commercial pilots alike—to be aware of the dangers inherent in operating a UAV / sUAS. This is a responsibility we take seriously, and one that we will continue working hard to meet.

The fact that no one has been seriously injured yet by any of these collisions is miraculous. If these kinds of incidents continue to happen we will almost certainly see injuries, and we may even see fatalities.

The time to act is now. We cannot abide this kind of behavior, and we all need to work together to stop it.

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