Lawmakers in both parties are increasingly convinced that Congress must take more aggressive legislative action to prevent the growing number of consumer drones from creating safety hazards in American skies.
One leading area of concern is the ease by which a private citizen can earn a federal drone operators license — currently it requires answering only 70 percent of questions correctly on a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test.
"It's only a matter of time till some jerk operating one of these things illegally brings down an airplane," Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazio'Design-build' contracts key to infrastructure success EPA closer to unveiling plan for tackling 'forever chemicals' Congress sends 30-day highway funding patch to Biden after infrastructure stalls MORE (D-Ore.) told The Hill in an interview.
Weighing less than 55 pounds, drones have broken ground in a variety of industries, including agriculture, transit, disaster assessment and law enforcement. But the rapid rise of hobbyist drones is what alarms lawmakers most.
DeFazio, the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, acknowledge the importance of developing drone technology for businesses, but said he is worried that the lack of oversight on drone operators could lead to more accidents.
Last fall, a civilian drone crashed into an Army helicopter in New York, and a few weeks later, another struck a commercial airliner in Canada. There were no fatalities, but Rep. Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoVan Drew-Kennedy race in NJ goes down to the wire Van Drew wins GOP primary in New Jersey Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew MORE (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, warned of the potential for future disasters.
"We’re lucky that no one was hurt or killed in those incidents, but we cannot count on luck to keep us safe the next time around," LoBiondo said in a November hearing examining drone usage.
Currently, only pilots operating small drones commercially are required to obtain certification. A rule finalized in June 2016 under section 107 of Federal Aviation Regulation does not regulate those operating drones recreationally, which worries longtime pilot and instructor Geoff Peterson.
"I am just a little concerned that for someone sharing the national airspace system at or below 400 feet ... that testing may not be rigorous enough," said Peterson, owner of Rising Phoenix Aviation flight school in Virginia. "These people are actually gonna be able to share the national airspace system with manned aircraft."
In an email to The Hill, an FAA spokesperson said while most recreational drone users operate safely, others can be a risk.
“We remain concerned that many act without realizing they operate in shared airspace … We are continuing our outreach efforts to new users, and we will continue to develop educational materials that exist within the regulations.”
The FAA also added that it does not currently have authority to change regulations, but said that drones must be registered and tracked.
DeFazio reiterated his support for the development of drone technology, but warned of a future without drones at all if the wrinkles aren't ironed out.
"I'll tell you what, if a plane goes down because of a drone, then all these things are out of the sky, so we need to get ahead of this problem."