Editorials

Private drone registry could help protect the public

A hexacopter drone like this can help farmers by directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals used.
A hexacopter drone like this can help farmers by directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals used. The Associated Press file, June

The details have yet to be ironed out, but the Obama administration – rightly – is moving toward mandatory registration for recreational drones. Commercial operators already must register.

Extending registration to hobbyists would provide an opportunity to better educate them on important rules that protect public safety. The most important ones: Don’t fly over 400 feet or within five miles of an airport.

Pilots already have reported hundreds of close calls with drones. During recent wildfires in California, planes couldn’t drop water on flames at times because drones were spotted flying in the vicinity. In August, an American Airlines flight descending into the Phoenix airport reported a close call – one of 22 in a seven-month period just in Arizona.

In April, a California pilot reported that a drone hit his Cessna at 4,800 feet, scratching the propeller and the plane’s body – the first such collision reported in this country.

Some aviation experts believe it’s only a matter of time before a drone accidentally brings down an airplane. If a bird strike can do it, so can a metallic “toy.”

The Federal Aviation Administration reports a jump in the number of close calls in recent years. Nationwide, there have been 969 reports of unsafe drone activity so far this year, including close calls with aircraft – more than quadruple the number reported in all of 2014, according to FAA data.

Those numbers are expected to keep rising as the market for private drones explodes. One market expert predicted that upwards of 1 million of the devices could be sold this holiday season. That should provide impetus for the task force charged with coming up with a registration plan.

The task force – comprised of government officials, pilots and private industry representatives – is supposed to decide by Nov. 20 such details as whether previously sold drones should be registered, how registration should be done (online or at point of sale, for instance) and which drones are small enough to exempt.

Registering drones won’t prevent all close calls, of course, just as registering our cars doesn’t prevent all vehicle accidents. But at least it would provide a way to track down the owner of a drone that caused an accident and provide some measure of accountability.

The knowledge that they could be held responsible should they cause a catastrophic accident should be motivation enough for more drone operators to observe the rules.

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