Sightings of drones flying around helicopters and airplanes have surged this year, and are likely to further fuel concerns about the possible impact on public safety and privacy of the unmanned aircraft.
Pilot reports of drones, also referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), have picked up dramatically, from 238 sightings throughout 2014, to over 650 in a little over seven months of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.
138 pilots, flying a variety of aircraft including large commercial air carriers, reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June this year, and another 137 pilots had similar experiences in July. This is a whopping increase from the previous year, when there were 16 such sightings in June and another 36 in the following month.
It is not that there aren't rules prohibiting drones from weaving around other aircraft, but the number of people breaching them is increasing. Currently, the commercial use of drones is banned except in certain cases approved by the FAA. 1008 such exemptions have been issued so far to companies and individuals from a variety of industries, with restrictions including on the altitude up to which the drones can fly.
The rules are more liberal for hobbyists and those using UAS for recreational purposes, but they are still required to fly their unmanned aircraft, which cannot weigh more than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), at below 400 feet (about 122 meters), within visual sight of the operator, and 5 miles (8 kilometers) away from airports.
But the problem of rogue drones came into sharp focus last month when they were found obstructing the fighting of a wildfire in California to apparently shoot videos. Drone activity in the area forced officials to ground their firefighting aircraft, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department, which was fighting a fire that jumped the highway and destroyed 20 vehicles and damaged 10 more on Interstate 15.
In the wake of these incidents, the National Interagency Fire Center launched a "If You Fly, We Can't" campaign to help reduce drone obstructions to firefighting operations. When a hobby drone is flown into a fire area, officials have said they have no choice but to suspend air operations and ground aircraft until the drone is removed from the area.
The FAA said Wednesday it wants to send out "a clear message " that the operation of drones around airplanes and helicopters is "dangerous and illegal." It warned that unauthorized operators could face stiff fines and criminal charges, including possibly jail time.
The agency has also launched a "Know Before You Fly" campaign to advise users on the safe and responsible use of drones, in tandem with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and the Small UAV Coalition.
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