FAA urged to get tougher with UAS airspace violators

By Patrick C. Miller | August 27, 2015

Last week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a new list of pilot, air traffic and citizen reports covering 765 possible encounters with unmanned aerial systems (UAS) from November last year to August this year.

The agency said the latest group of pilot reports shows dramatic rise in claims of drone encounters over the last 10 months.

In releasing the information, the FAA said: “Because pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, the FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”

James Mackler, a Nashville attorney who recently moved his practice to Frost Brown Todd LLC and advises clients on the use of UAS, stressed that the FAA needs to take its enforcement mandate seriously.

“The FAA has the tools to punish individuals who interfere with manned aircraft or fly in restricted airspace,” he said. “It should also consider referring violators to state authorities for prosecution under local laws prohibiting reckless conduct.”

Doug Carr, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) vice president for regulatory and international affairs, said the sharp increase in pilots reporting close calls with small UAS is in line with the greater availability of such systems to non-commercial operators.

"It seems clear that most—if not all—of these reported encounters were with small UAS being flown by recreational users, versus commercial UAS pilots operating under clear and concise restrictions with prior approval from the agency," he said. "The FAA must continue to reinforce that sUAS operations absolutely cannot interfere with manned aircraft operations."

Mackler noted that the fledging U.S. aviation industry once experienced a similar problem. In 1928, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh wrote to the New York Times to warn that inexperienced stunt flyers engaging in “foolish flying” were a threat to the budding aviation industry.

“Given the recent news from the FAA about the dramatic increase in UAS near misses, Charles Lindberg’s words sound as timely today as they were almost a century ago,” Mackler said. “Then, as now, regulators are struggling with how to control the rogue elements of a burgeoning industry. Responsible operators know that nothing hurts public confidence more than ‘foolish flying,’ yet the responsible pilots are also resistant to increased regulations.”

Carr emphasized the need for the FAA to implement sensible requirements governing unmanned aircraft operations, including clear guidance on where UAS may and may not be flown.

"In our response to the draft notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) issued earlier this year, NBAA encouraged the FAA to adopt a maximum sUAS operating altitude restriction of 400 feet above ground level," he said. "We also stated that sUAS should not operate in the vicinity of airports, or other areas near manned aircraft, without coordination between the sUAS operator and the governing air traffic control authority."

Mackler also recommends that the U.S. Congress “reconsider its decision to take a relatively ‘hands-off’ approach to model aircraft,” noting that FAA regulations exempt those aircraft and hobbyists from requirements that apply to commercial users.

“If Congress were to begin requiring that such users register their aircraft, the FAA would have a greater ability to identify law breakers,” he explained. “Hobby operators would have a strong incentive to comply with this requirement. The current penalty for failure to register an aircraft is up to three years in jail.”


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