Drone operators bristle at feds' tracking of 'close calls' with planes

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Drone users are bristling at the Federal Aviation Administration's method for calculating the number of close calls between the devices and commercial airplanes.

The FAA said recently that the number of drone sightings that have been reported by airline pilots has risen from 238 in 2014 to 650 in the first half of this year.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents drone hobbyists, said Monday that the figures are being inflated by the inclusion of drones that are not flying anywhere close to commercial flights and other non-drone airborne devices.

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“It is irresponsible for the FAA to assert in the media that ‘close calls’ happened when the agency admits that they don’t have a clear regulatory definition of what that means," Rich Hanson, the group's Government and Regulatory Affairs Representative, said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"If the FAA hasn’t been able to verify what these are, they shouldn’t refer to them as close calls,” Hanson continued.

The report from the FAA that the number of drone sightings by airline pilots has increased approximately five-fold in the past year made waves earlier this month. The news prompted at least one lawmaker, Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Tech: Groups grade Clinton tech agenda | Facebook activates safety check in Istanbul | Another holdup for location data bill Senate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico Reid backs House Puerto Rico bill MORE (D-Conn.), to push regulators to take "aggressive action" to prevent potential collisions between commercial airplanes and drones.

The FAA cast the decision to release the numbers in early August as part of their effort to keep unmanned aircrafts away from airports and commercial and private jets.

“Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time,” the agency said in a statement when the numbers were first released.

The drone enthusiat group cited an Aug. 30 Winston-Salem Journal article on Monday that revealed the FAA's database of drone sightings that have been reported by pilots included a UFO that was allegedly seen flying 51,000 feet above ground near Washington, D.C.

"Despite the agency characterizing these reports as 'close calls,' the article references several drone sightings that have nothing to do with airliners," the association said in an email. "Meanwhile, the FAA now admits that there is no regulatory definition of ‘close call.’ An agency spokesperson says the phrase was used for its news value."

The FAA is in the process of developing regulations to allow a rapid expansion of the use of commercial drones in the U.S.

The agency has faced tremendous pressure to approve such an expansion of nonmilitary drone use from companies such as Amazon, who have said the technology can be used to make speedier online deliveries.

Police and other law enforcement groups are also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with photography at college and professional sporting events.

The FAA’s proposed rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour.

The regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. Drone operators are also prohibited under the FAA proposal from conducting flights that take the devices out of their line of vision, which was a big blow to companies that have touted the possibility of using the technology to conduct deliveries.

The rules make drone operators responsible for avoiding collisions with manned aircraft that are in the same airspace as the devices, and they prohibit drone flights that “fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”

-Updated at 8:31 p.m. to correct an earlier version that misidentified the Academy of Model Aeronautics.