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Drone threat concerns U.S. pilots as FAA weighs rules

12/17/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST
Imagine you're on a Porter Airlines flight from Toronto to Washington, D.C., and as the plane descends toward Dulles airport you glance out the window at the Virginia landscape below. Out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of something gliding alongside the plane.

It's not a bird. The black and silver flying object appears to be an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, sailing through the skies at the same altitude, just 15 metres away from you.

Your pilot spots it too, and after landing your plane safely, the risky mid-air incident is reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other authorities.

This incident really happened on June 29 and is one of many close calls between passenger aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles reported to the FAA in recent months.

Pilots of private and commercial planes describe seeing small drones, the kinds that are increasingly popular with hobbyists and photographers, flying within just a few metres of them, in some cases as they are approaching the country's busiest airports.

The pilots are concerned about the damage one could do if it struck a plane's propeller or got sucked into an engine. Bird strikes are known to cause major damage, and drones, even small ones, are now becoming another risk in America's crowded skies.

"Catastrophic," is how Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, described the potential consequences if a drone collided with an aircraft. Moak testified recently on Capitol Hill at a House transportation committee meeting that focused on how the FAA is integrating drones into American airspace.

2015 deadline for regulations

He told the committee that commercial pilots are willing to share the skies with drones and that he knows how valuable the drone industry is poised to become, but that safety has to be the No. 1 priority.

"We recognize the potential benefit to our nation's economic competitiveness, but we also recognize the potential for a safety risk if we don't treat them as what they are — airplanes in airspace," he said.

Moak's association is urging the FAA to proceed cautiously and not succumb to pressure to quickly set regulations, but other stakeholders are appealing to the FAA to hurry.

In 2012, Congress told the FAA it has until September 2015 to figure out how to integrate drones into American airspace. The agency is still working on it and nowhere near done. There are guidelines for recreational users (the drones must stay under 400 feet (122 metres) and not be flown near airports), but until the final rules come out, commercial drone flights are mostly banned. The FAA has granted some exemptions, and the line to get special permission is a long and slow one.

Companies like Amazon are among those encouraging the FAA to expedite the rules, warning that the U.S. is falling behind as an aviation leader and is losing out on an industry potentially worth billions. One drone industry association estimates that economic activity could reach at least $82 billion by 2025 and that tens of thousands of jobs could be created.

Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages to customers, and in a letter to the FAA last week the company said it has already started testing outside of the U.S. because of the FAA's current restrictions. It wants to create jobs and support innovation in the United States, Amazon said, but the FAA's slow crawl toward regulations is making that difficult.

Is Canada ahead of U.S. on drones?

Similar feelings were expressed at the transportation committee hearing. Some lamented that Canada and other countries are further ahead of the U.S. when it comes to deciding how to safely allow drone traffic to join the airspace.

They aren't happy that business is moving elsewhere, particularly north of the border, because of the FAA's slow progress. 

"Are they smarter than us? I don't think so. Are they better than us? I don't think so," Representative Frank LoBiondo said about Canada and other countries. 

Meanwhile, the interim rules aren't always being followed, as the close encounters between unmanned aircraft and piloted aircraft show, which is another reason the FAA needs to act faster, some critics say.

"There are hundreds if not thousands of small UAV businesses here in the U.S. either operating in the shadows or struggling to follow the current rules," Jesse Kallman, head of business development and regulatory affairs for Airware, a San Francisco-based company, told the committee.

Time is money and companies wanting in on the drone action are either flouting the rules or leaving the U.S., Kallman suggested. The U.S. is poised to be a leader in drone technology and all of its potential applications, but unless the FAA acts quickly, it will miss out, he added.

The FAA admits that the process is taking a long time, but says it will continue to issue exemptions, educate the public about restrictions on airspace use and enforce the rules as it works toward the final regulations.

It isn't inspiring a lot of confidence, however, when it comes to meeting next year's deadline.

This past August the FAA was supposed to set rules for small drones under 55 pounds (25 kilograms). It missed that target. 

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