Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Drones have become a real danger

    Almost everyone knows the heroic story of U.S. Air Flight 1549. When geese were sucked into the engines of an Airbus A320-200 taking off from New York City, Captain Chesley Sullenberger managed to land his crippled plane on the Hudson River, saving every one of the 155 on board. The geese’s grisly demise shut down the engines.
    What if those geese had been filled with metal, plastic and battery chemicals? What happens when a dynamic technology puts thousands of these objects into the world’s busiest and most complex airspaces? Until some answers are found, the growing enthusiasm for commercial drones should be restrained.
    Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles, are best known for use in war zones. Dropping prices and advancing features have opened up possibilities for energy exploration, land management, sports photography, logistics and dozens of other commercial uses. Often controlled by onboard computers, they can fly a long way at high altitudes. They are not toys.
    Incidents between planes and drones are already more than speculation. Recently, the pilot of a U.S. Airways flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., reported a frightening possible collision with a drone.
    The Federal Aviation Administration has begun researching how to prevent drones from wreaking havoc in the skies or on the ground. Currently, the FAA limits their commercial use to below 400 feet or near airports. A new proposal is expected in late 2014.
    The process that will lead to a broadly accepted body of law will be long, however, and some are unwilling to wait. According to a new Reuters report, individuals using drones for commercial purposes in the United States are in some cases simply ignoring the federal regulations that restrict drone flights and in others using clever tricks to avoid the regulations entirely.
    Enforcement has been spotty and courts are not yet on board. An administrative judge reversed one FAA fine for “careless and reckless operation of an aircraft” because, he said, drone rules are only guidelines, legally unenforceable.
    This new technology and commercial opportunities are exciting, but few would be as excited about a drone crossing their flight path during take off or landing. Drone operators should be examined and licensed. Rules should be clear and enforced rigorously enough to dissuade bad actors. The danger is more than potential. The danger is real and the flying public has to be protected.

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