Drone sightings near airplanes on the rise

Drone sightings near airplanes on the rise
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Pilots are reporting seeing more drones flying near airplanes and other aircraft, representing a potentially dangerous trend as federal regulators wrestle with how to safely integrate the emerging technology into the nation’s skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it has received over 2,000 drone-sighting complaints alone this year, for an average of almost 200 reports from pilots each month. The agency received approximately 1,800 complaints in 2016 and 1,200 complaints in 2015.

“The potential for conflicts between manned and unmanned aircraft has become a very real challenge in integrating these new technologies into the [national airspace],” Daniel Elwell, deputy FAA administrator, said in written testimony for a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing. “The increasing number of these reports is of great concern.”

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The rise in drone sightings comes on the heels of a study from the FAA earlier this week that found a small drone could inflict more damage than a bird if it strikes an airplane. An Army helicopter was seriously damaged earlier this year after colliding with a civilian drone, though no one was injured in the incident.

The FAA says it has been ramping up public education and outreach efforts, such as through the “Know Before You Fly” campaign and the small unmanned aerial system registration process, to further improve safety.

But while Congress and federal regulators want to ensure the safety of the nation’s skies, they also fear that the U.S. will fall behind other countries if they do not pick up the pace in allowing more types of drone operations, especially for commercial use.

There are still strict limits on the types of operations that are allowed, including restrictions on flights over people, nighttime operations and flying beyond the visual line of sight.

The FAA just launched a new pilot program allowing local governments to partner with the private sector to test expanded drone operations, including for package deliveries.