Midair near-misses show need for tighter drone controls

The surge in reports of near-misses between drones and aircraft suggests it may only be a matter of time before one of the remote-controlled devices causes a tragedy in the nation’s skies.

That would be unfortunate on a number of levels. Not only could it be a human disaster, but it could also damage a budding industry that shows important potential for uses in public safety, news gathering and remote delivery.

Under pressure by news organizations to release records, the Federal Aviation Administration says commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have reported more than 25 midair incidents in the past six months in which drones came disturbingly close to aircraft. In some cases, the drones were mere seconds or feet from impact with the aircraft.

Although most of the drones were the smaller camera-equipped models used by hobbyists and photographers, they could potentially bring down a plane by striking a propeller, penetrating a windshield or being sucked into an engine. Helicopters – such as those used by medical emergency and rescue teams – would be especially vulnerable to crashing if a drone struck a rotor.

Lawmakers and drone manufacturers want the FAA to develop regulations so that commercial use of the devices can expand. But that could be endangered by hobbyists’ negligence that has led to the near-misses. Even if rules are drawn up, the FAA doesn’t have the staff to enforce them, police airports and track down offenders.

Hobbyists are required to keep their drones under 400 feet and five miles away from airports. But some of the reports involved drones flying at thousands of feet, including one in which a Republic Airlines Flight almost hit a drone flying at 4,000 feet Sept. 30 near New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Drones also aren’t supposed to be operated within five miles of an airport, yet many of the reports were of incidents near major airports in New York and Washington, D.C. Let a drone hit a plane carrying some members of Congress and see what happens to the drone industry. Even more disturbing than an accidental collision would be a deliberate one, which could have serious implications for the airline industry.

The challenge seems to be to get greater control over the private use of drones, especially since prices have dropped to the point that they’re more widely affordable. Perhaps requiring that they be outfitted with identification/tracking devices would help deter misbehavior.