We must act to protect manned aircraft from irresponsible drone operators

There’s a buzz in the air. Farmers are learning how to use drones to better manage their crops. Businesses are exploring the potential of drones for delivery services. Unmanned aircraft are even being used to improve hurricane forecasting and assist with search and rescue missions. Of course, the number of recreational drones in the air is also growing every year. But drones, as with any technological innovation, bring new risks— especially to other aircraft with which they share the skies.

Flying has never been safer, but recreational drone use poses new threats to aviation safety. We know from the heroic story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — who landed a plane on the Hudson River— that birds can compromise an engine and take down an aircraft. A metal drone could do just as much or even more damage. 

{mosads}Pilots and others are reporting increasing numbers of encounters with drones flying dangerously close to aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received reports of more than 1,800 drones engaged in hazardous or unauthorized activity over the last 12 months— an average of more than four per day. Computer models show that the ingestion of a drone as small as eight pounds could have a devastating impact on an aircraft engine. We also know that drones are capable of causing catastrophic damage to airplane control surfaces, flaps, and other essential components.

The FAA has the authority to impose civil penalties on individuals operating drones in a manner that puts people and property at risk, but there currently is no criminal provision that directly addresses the unsafe operation of drones. Last month, we re-introduced the Drone& Operator Safety Act in the Senate and House of Representatives, which would, for the first time, make it a criminal offense to knowingly or recklessly fly a drone in a way that interferes with, or disrupts the operation of, a manned aircraft. It would also expressly prohibit flying drones in an airport’s arrival or departure flight path without permission from the airport’s air traffic control tower.

We know that most operators fly their drones responsibly, but there have been too many incidents where drones have come dangerously close to manned aircraft. This bill will help protect pilots and passengers from that risky behavior.

In crafting this legislation, we’ve worked with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, airport administrators, pilots and other stakeholders who are committed to safe travel. We’ve also heard from representatives of the recreational drone community, and we’re committed to addressing their concerns. It is time for Congress to pass the Drone Operator Safety Act to penalize drone operators who recklessly endanger aircraft. It’s a commonsense way to prevent a few bad actors from giving this new technology a bad name. We want drone operators to be able to enjoy their hobby and businesses to be able to harness the potential of unmanned aircraft, and we want air travelers to be safe. With the right rules in place, the sky’s the limit.

Whitehouse is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Langevin represents Rhode Island’s 2nd District and is a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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