The sky is such a big place, it seems odd to think of it as crowded. Nevertheless, there seems to be a never-ending stream of stories making just that point. For example, earlier this week it was reported that:
In the last 30 days, there have been 10 incidents in which drones have gotten close to passenger jetliners in the New York area, and in some cases, even forced evasive action by pilots, according to a senior aviation official.
Of course, one nightmare scenario for the FAA is that a UAS will get sucked into an engine on take-off, causing a shut-down or possibly even an uncontained turbine failure.
Virtually all of these near-miss articles have one thing in common. They conclude with a comment that the FAA is currently involved in UAS rulemaking which will be finalized sometime in the near future. The implication for the reader is, of course, that these near-misses are a serious and growing problem, but that new rules will likely provide a solution. Unfortunately, this view is wrong, because a lack of rules is not the problem.
If there is a near miss between a UAS and an airplane, that means either the UAS is operating too close to an airport or it is otherwise flying in navigable airspace. This is already forbidden by U.S. law. Currently, the rules prohibit anyone from flying a UAS commercially. The rules also prohibit any hobbyists from flying in navigable airspace, over 400 feet, or within 5 miles of an airport. To the extent public entities are legally flying UASs, they are doing so under a Certificate of Authorization that requires UAS flights to give way to aircraft and coordinate with local air traffic control. There are no gaps in these rules that would permit a UAS to legally have a near-miss with an aircraft. Thus, no new rules are needed to prevent a collision.
The current rash of near-misses is almost exclusively caused by either the ignorance, stupidity or arrogance of UAS operators. Either these people do not know where they can legally fly, they do know, but are ignorant of the consequences of breaking the rules, or they simply don’t care.
While the FAA has been trying to educate the public, it has been having a hard time breaking through the static of misinformation to reach its intended audience. Unfortunately, the way things are going, it may take a catastrophic accident, along with the attendant 24-hour news coverage, to finally bring the message home. In the meantime, perhaps the media will stop focusing on potential new rules, and give the current rules a little more coverage in their stories.
(Originally posted August 12, 2014)