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Close encounters with UAVs and airplanes on the rise in U.S.

June 24, 2014, Washington, D.C. - On the same day last month, airline pilots trying to land at two of the nation’s busiest airports got on their radios to report the unnerving sight of small rogue drones buzzing at high altitudes.


June 24, 2014
By The Washington Post

In the first incident on May 29, the pilot of a commercial airliner
descending toward LaGuardia Airport saw what appeared to be a black
drone with a 10-to-15-foot wingspan about 5,500 feet above Lower
Manhattan, according to a previously undisclosed report filed with the
Federal Aviation Administration.

In the second, two airliners separately approaching Los Angeles
International Airport soared past what they described as a drone or
remote-controlled aircraft the size of a trash can at an altitude of
6,500 feet, FAA records show.

The records do not name the airlines involved or say how close the
aircraft came to the drones when they flew past. FAA officials said
their inspectors could not track down the unregistered drones or
determine who was flying them. “In many cases, radar data is not
available and the operators cannot be identified,” the agency said in a
statement.

The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters
between civilian airplanes and drones flown in contravention of FAA
rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace. Hazardous occurrences are
becoming more frequent as more drones — legal and illegal — take to the
skies, according to a year-long investigation by The Washington Post:

  • In 15 cases over the past two years, drones flew dangerously close
    to airports or passenger aircraft, including the incidents in New York
    and Los Angeles, according to reports submitted to the FAA. On May 3,
    the pilot of a commercial airliner preparing to land in Atlanta reported
    a small drone with four legs and bright lights “in close proximity” to
    his plane, according to the FAA records. The agency recently disclosed
    that the pilot of a US Airways plane reported a near-collision with a
    drone or remotely controlled model aircraft over Tallahassee Regional
    Airport on March 22 in Florida.
  • A different set of records suggests that risky midair encounters are
    even more common. A NASA database of confidential complaints filed by
    pilots and air-traffic controllers has recorded 50 other reports of
    close calls or improper flight operations involving drones over the past
    decade.
  • Civilian drones flown with the FAA’s permission and under its
    scrutiny are also susceptible to crashes. Since November 2009, law
    enforcement agencies, universities and other registered drone users have
    reported 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents, according to FAA
    records.

The problem is worsening just as the federal government is preparing
to lift barriers that could flood the country’s already congested skies
with thousands of remotely controlled aircraft. Under a law passed two
years ago, Congress ordered the FAA to issue rules legalizing drones for
commercial purposes by September 2015 — the first step in a new era of
aviation that will eventually allow drones of all sizes to fly freely in
the national airspace, sharing the same airports as regular planes.

 

Congress imposed dual mandates on the FAA that the agency has
struggled to reconcile. Under the law, the agency must draft rules for
drones as soon as possible so businesses can exploit their economic
potential. The FAA must also ensure that safety standards are not
compromised and passenger aircraft are not imperiled.

 

The FAA is facing pressure to move faster from drone manufacturers,
the military, members of Congress and many companies that see remotely
controlled airplanes as a breakthrough technology. The drone industry
complains that it is losing $27 million in economic benefits a day while
the FAA prepares regulations for certifying drones and licensing
pilots.

 

The FAA says it is moving as quickly as it can.

 

“I completely understand that there is significant potential, there’s
significant benefit, there’s great things that unmanned aircraft can
do. We need to be convinced that they can do so safely,” Michael P.
Huerta, the FAA’s administrator, said in an interview.

 

“Every day in America people are getting on airplanes. Every day
people are seeing airplanes in the sky,” Huerta added. “But they’re not
really worried a lot about whether it’s safe. It’s their expectation
that these things, that unmanned aircraft flying around in our airspace,
will meet that same level of safety. And we owe that to them.”

 

The longer the FAA takes to finalize its rules, the more rogue drones are taking to the skies.

 

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, small satellite-guided drones
with powerful miniature cameras can be bought online for less than
$500. Flying drones as a hobby is permitted as long as operators keep
them below 400 feet, away from populated areas and at least three miles
from an airport, according to the FAA. But those restrictions are being
flouted and ignored.

 

On May 5, a quad-copter — a drone with four rotors — crashed into the
30th floor of St. Louis’s Metropolitan Square building, the city’s
tallest. In March, the FAA fined a Brooklyn man $2,200 for striking two
midtown Manhattan skyscrapers with his quad-copter before it nearly hit a
pedestrian. In August, a small drone with multiple rotors crashed into
the grandstand at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie County,
injuring three spectators.

 

Even drone advocates worry that the skies are becoming a free-for-all.

 

“We have to understand that the industry is at risk because of
illegal drone usage,” Krista M. Ochs, a General Dynamics executive, said
last month at a drone-industry conference in Orlando. “If we have a
major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision, it could
set us back years.”

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act,
legislation that ordered the federal government to “safely accelerate”
the integration of civilian drones into the busiest airspace in the
world.

 

At the time, the military had been flying drones overseas for more
than a decade, revolutionizing warfare by keeping pilots on the ground
and out of harm’s way. Defense contractors who invented the technology
saw even bigger potential to sell drones to private businesses and other
government agencies. Industry groups projected a market with $8 billion
in annual revenue.

 

Until then, the FAA had been moving slowly and cautiously, issuing a
handful of permits for the military, law enforcement agencies and
universities to fly drones under restrictive conditions. The new law
ordered the FAA to hurry it up. Lawmakers set a deadline of Sept. 30,
2015, for the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan and allow civilian
drones to begin flying on a more regular basis.

The FAA has approved
six sites across the country to test drones and produce data that will
shape safety standards. Officials said they will first propose rules for
drones weighing 55 pounds or less. Regulations for larger aircraft will
take significantly longer. Both sets of rules could take years to
finalize. In an interim step, FAA officials say they may grant permits
to filmmakers, farmers, and the oil and gas industry to use small drones
under limited circumstances.

 

Manufacturers of drones and businesses that want to buy them are
losing patience. They warn that foreign companies will steal the market
if the FAA does not act swiftly. “We have got to be able to understand
what the standards must be, and we have got to start fielding this
technology,” Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the drone
industry’s trade association, said in a May 30 speech to the Aero Club
in Washington.

Pro-drone lawmakers are also frustrated. “I am desperate to see this
potential unleashed,” Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the
House Transportation Committee’s aviation panel, said at the
drone-industry conference in Orlando. “Sometimes I think government
bureaucrats are too cautious in holding people back.”

 

The FAA is feeling the heat from other corners. Civil libertarians
are predicting a surveillance state run amok if the FAA does not issue
privacy guidelines for government drone operators — an issue that
Congress did not address in the 2012 law.

 

Many small-aircraft pilots and air-traffic controllers argue that
allowing drones to fly alongside regular planes makes no sense. Greg
Cromer, a private pilot from Stephens City, Va., submitted a letter to
the FAA saying that he was “vehemently opposed” to the whole idea.

 

“I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or kitchen appliance,” he wrote.

Posing the most immediate
threat to air traffic is the proliferation of small, unauthorized drones
that can reach previously unimaginable heights.

 

On Sept. 22, while at an altitude of 2,300 feet over Phoenix, a pilot
reported a near-collision with a black-and-white drone the size of a
basketball, according to records the FAA released with many details
redacted. The pilot reported that the drone was 200 feet ahead and
closing in. The pilot swerved left and the two aircraft missed each
other by 50 feet.

 

Small drones usually do not show up on air controllers’ radar screens
and often go undetected by traffic collision avoidance systems
installed on other planes. Pilots, in incidents to date, were caught
unaware until they peered out their windows and spotted the unidentified
flying objects at uncomfortably close range.

A small drone hovers
during a meet-up of the DC Area Drone Users Group, made up of hobbyists
who gather to fly unmanned aerial vehicles.
(Getty Images)

 

On March 25, 2012, a pilot was flying 11 miles northwest of Houston
at 2,000 feet when he saw what he described as a drone just 100 feet
below his plane. The mysterious aircraft disappeared in a blur before
the pilot could get a better look. He notified the control tower, but it
could not find the drone on radar.

 

The elusiveness of small drones and the absence of a registration or
licensing system make it extremely difficult for the FAA to hold
culprits accountable.

 

The agency has imposed fines against two drone operators. In addition
to the Brooklyn man, in 2011 the FAA penalized a videographer $10,000
for using a drone to produce a promotional film about the University of
Virginia Medical Center.

 

The FAA accused the videographer, Raphael Pirker, of flying a
56-inch-long foam drone recklessly, swooping close to people on the
ground. In March, after Pirker challenged the fine and said he was
operating in a safe manner, a federal administrative-law judge
overturned the penalty, finding that the FAA had exceeded its regulatory
authority.

 

The agency has appealed, but the ruling cast further doubt on the
agency’s ability to police drone flights until it can finalize the new
rules mandated by Congress. Last month, The Post and other news
organizations filed a legal brief in support of Pirker, arguing that the
FAA’s de facto ban on commercial drones was overly restrictive and
threatened journalists’ First Amendment rights to use drones to gather
the news.

 

The NASA database
suggests that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft
are more common than the FAA acknowledges.

 

In July 2013, a commercial air carrier was approaching LaGuardia
Airport at 7,000 feet when the crew spotted a small, black object
zipping toward the larger aircraft, just 500 feet below it. The crew
thought it was a drone but “couldn’t really make out much more than that
because it happened so fast.”

 

The first officer reported the incident anonymously to the Aviation
Safety Reporting System, a database project run by NASA. The system
encourages pilots, air-traffic controllers and others in the world of
aviation to submit confidential reports about unsafe incidents without
fear of getting entangled in enforcement actions by the FAA.

 

Precise
dates and other identifying details are stripped out of the reports
before they are posted in the publicly accessible database.

 

Since 2005, the system has received 50 reports of unsafe incidents
involving drones. Some were minor infractions or deviations from
airspace regulations. Others were near-disasters.

 

Many of the incidents involved military drones flying outside
restricted airspace. In March 2013, the pilot of a Bombardier CRJ-200
regional airliner was descending toward the Newport News/Williamsburg
International Airport in Virginia when the captain saw something that
looked like a hawk circling in the distance.

 

It wasn’t.

 

“A few seconds later, what we thought looked like a hawk took the
shape of an aircraft with wings,” the captain reported. As the distance
between the two aircraft narrowed, the Bombardier turned right to avoid a
collision. The drone turned, too. “For about five seconds it seemed to
chase us,” the captain said in his report.

 

The drone flew “extremely erratically,” performing rolls and loops
before passing to the left of the passenger aircraft. Three military
helicopters also flew by at a safer distance. The angry jetliner captain
called the airport to complain about the “careless and reckless”
maneuvering of the drone pilot and demanded to know who was responsible.
Airport officials responded that “they could not officially tell us
what it was,” the pilot reported.

 

One month earlier, at another Virginia airport, controllers were
similarly evasive after the pilot of a corporate jet reported a near
miss with what he suspected was a drone. The pilot was descending toward
Leesburg Executive Airport, about 35 miles from Washington, when his
traffic collision avoidance system rang an alarm — another aircraft had
suddenly closed within 200 feet.

 

The jet’s first officer looked out and saw a gray aircraft with a
twin boom and a long wing, “different from any normal light aircraft I
have ever seen.” The captain asked air-traffic controllers whether it
was a drone, “given our proximity to Washington.” A supervisor came on
the line to acknowledge that controllers were tracking the aircraft but
would not say what it was. “If, in fact, this was a UAV,” the first
officer wrote in his report, using the acronym for unmanned aerial
vehicle, “then the obvious solution is to keep UAVs out of civilian
airspace.”

 

Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air
Traffic Controllers Association, described the pending integration of
drones into the national airspace as “a tsunami headed for the front
porch.” He predicted that it would take several years to devise reliable
technology that would allow large drones to take off and land from the
same airports as passenger planes.

 

In the short term, however, small rogue drones are presenting a
bigger challenge. Stephenson said it was his personal opinion that the
FAA may need to regulate the sale of cheap, remotely controlled aircraft
to further discourage unlicensed operators from flying in risky areas.

 

“The FAA’s got a big load to take care of because these things are running away from them,” he said.

Even FAA-approved drones that fly under carefully monitored conditions are susceptible to breakdowns and accidents.

 

On Jan. 27, the generator failed on a drone operated by U.S. Customs
and Border Protection on a surveillance mission over the Pacific Ocean.
The Predator B drone — a civilian version of the Air Force’s advanced
Reaper aircraft, with a 66-foot wingspan — lacked enough battery power
to return to its base in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The pilots decided to ditch
the $12 million aircraft into international waters, about 20 miles
southwest of San Diego, according to FAA and Customs and Border
Protection officials.

 

The aircraft was one of 23 FAA-approved drones operated by civilian
agencies and universities that have crashed since November 2009,
according to previously undisclosed FAA records.

The FAA has granted certificates to dozens of federal departments,
law enforcement agencies and universities to fly civilian drones,
subject to restrictions on where and when they can operate.

 

Civilian agencies have reported 236 unsafe or abnormal incidents to
the FAA since 2009, the records show. The vast majority of incidents
involved drones flown by Customs and Border Protection, which has
accounted for more than three-quarters of all flight hours by
FAA-certified drones.

 

After the loss of the aircraft that crashed in January, Customs and
Border Protection now operates a fleet of nine unarmed Predator B’s from
bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota. The agency’s drone
surveillance program began in 2005 but got off to a ragged start. One
drone crashed 100 yards from a house in Nogales, Ariz., in April 2006,
prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to chide the agency
for “providing a minimal amount of operational oversight.”

 

NTSB records show that three Predator B’s belonging to Customs and
Border Protection have been involved in previously unpublicized hard
landings that damaged the aircraft. A spokesman for the border agency
declined to comment.

Civilian drones are vulnerable to another safety threat: hacking.

 

Drones rely on GPS signals to navigate and are controlled by pilots
or operators on the ground via a two-way radio transmission link.

 

The military protects the communications and navigation links it uses
to control drones with highly advanced encryption technology. Civilian
drones, however, generally rely on unencrypted satellite links and radio
transmissions that can be hacked, jammed or spoofed.

 

In June 2012, a University of Texas at Austin aerospace engineering
professor and a team of students gathered at the White Sands Missile
Range in New Mexico to perform a demonstration. Before the eyes of
officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the team of
academics used a hand-built device to stealthily seize control of, or
spoof, an $80,000 Hornet rotorcraft drone flying about a kilometer in
the distance.

 

The team transmitted false signals that fooled the drone into
thinking it was flying high when it fact it was

plummeting toward the
ground. The spoofers from Texas changed course at the last minute and
averted a crash.
Todd E. Humphreys, the professor who led the team, said spoofing a drone
is not simple. It took him and his students about three years to
perfect their technique. But he said rapid technology improvements are
making the task progressively easier.

 

In an interview, Humphreys said it would not be cheap or easy to
build defenses against hackers. If the FAA permits widespread commercial
drone traffic before effective solutions are in place, he predicted,
“the hackers will come out of the woodwork.”

 

The most pressing concern, he said, are the large Predator B drones
that federal Border Patrol agents fly along the long borders with Canada
and Mexico. Humphreys said he is skeptical that Homeland Security
officials have secured the navigation links well enough to thwart
hackers.

 

“They’ve never offered any evidence of that, and I don’t know how that can be true,” he said. “It’s a huge vulnerability.”