On May 29, 2015, a passenger jet nearly collided midair with a drone at 2,700 feet as it approached New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
The flight crew reported climbing 200 feet to avoid a collision as the plane made its final approach. The jet, with 70 to 78 passenger seats, was arriving from Washington, D.C., and eventually landed safely.
Like bird strikes, drones can get sucked into a plane’s engine and potentially cause a disaster. The incident at LaGuardia is one of a growing number of near collisions between drones and commercial airplanes, and this is not sitting well with many, including those in Washington.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced the Consumer Drone Safety Act that looks to shore up safety features on consumer drones and the federal laws that govern their operation. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) cosponsored the bill.
This bill has nothing to do with the FAA’s proposed rules on small commercial drones, this is all about hobbyist drones. It’s looking to regulate the maximum height for flight, the weather and time-of-day conditions for flight, and any areas or circumstances where flights may be prohibited or limited, such as near airports, in the flight paths of manned aircraft, in urban areas, or over public events where spectators are present.
If passed, the Consumer Drone Safety Act would require manufacturers to update existing consumer drones to meet these requirements where feasible, such as through an automatic software update.
The idea is to put precautions in place to “minimize the risk of a disastrous mid-air collision or crash to the ground.”
One of the more interesting points of the bill is that it would direct the FAA to require safety features for new consumer drones such as:
- Geo-fencing to govern the altitude and location of flights
- Collision-avoidance software
- Precautions for the loss of a communications link
- A way for pilots and air traffic control to detect and identify the drone
- Anti-tampering safeguards
- Educational materials for consumers
This bill also allows the FAA to exempt particular types of consumer drones from any requirement that is technologically infeasible or cost prohibitive if other operational precautions are taken.
“If we don’t act now, it’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands,” Feinstein said. “Consumer drones are a new technology. They can fly thousands of feet in the air and jeopardize air travel, but the FAA can only regulate them if they are used for commercial purposes. That loophole must be closed.”
Current Penalties Aren’t Harsh Enough
There are rules currently in place for hobbyist drone flyers such as:
- You have to fly your drone below 400 feet at all times
- Don’t fly within 5 miles of any airport
- Don’t fly near any manned aircraft
- Don’t fly within 25 feet of people
- Don’t conduct surveillance or photograph people without their permission in areas where there is an expectation of privacy
The problem, Schumer says, is that current penalties aren’t harsh enough to deter hobbyists from recklessly flying drones.
“I think there has to be tough enforcement actions, absolutely because safety has to come first,” Schumer said. “God forbid there’s a day where a drone collides with a major airliner and there are fatalities.”
The FAA recently launched its “Know Before You Fly” campaign to help new drone users understand where you can and can’t fly your new toy. The video below goes over some of the basics you need to know.
How the Consumer Drone Safety Act Came to Be
Feinstein wrote a letter to the FAA (PDF) in July 2014 to express her “deep concern” about drones, asking the FAA to “redouble” its efforts to protect the U.S. airspace. She said “recreational use of drones is illegal if it poses a danger to the airspace, for example by flying carelessly and recklessly near pedestrians or airplanes.”
Feinstein added that “if [the] FAA cannot assure me that the safety of the airspace can be protected against such drone operation, I will introduce legislation to strengthen and extend the current moratorium and put in place further safeguards to protect Americans.”