A problem with the regulatory philosophy towards unmanned aircraft systems is quickly coming into view. While foreign and domestic governments are investing time and money developing strict standards for commercial drone use, the more pressing threat of recreational use has largely escaped the regulatory spotlight.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) finalized two reports last week that shed some light on the perils of recreational drone use. The first report describes a near collision of a passenger plane with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near Perth Airport in Western Australia. While approaching the airport for landing, the crew “sighted a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft,” reports the ATSB. The UAV tracked towards the aircraft and the pilot was forced to take evasive action, dodging the UAV by about 20 meters. The ATSB has been unable to locate or identify the operator of the UAV, which was flying in restricted airspace at the time of the incident.
The second report describes another near collision with a recreational drone just three days later in the airspace over Newcastle, the second most populated city in the Australian state of New South Wales. In that incident, the crew of a rescue helicopter spotted a UAV hovering over Hunter Stadium during an Australian football match. The UAV tracked towards the helicopter as the helicopter began its descent. The ATSB’s report was supplemented with a comment by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which explained that the UAV appeared to be a “first person view” vehicle that was transmitting a live video feed back to its operator. In other words, the operator was watching the game. Neither the venue nor the official broadcaster took or authorized any aerial footage of the game. CASA noted that over 90% of complaints received about UAVs relate to incidents caused by first person view drones.
Though these reports come from halfway around the world, they highlight a flaw in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approach to the use of drones in American airspace. The FAA subjects commercial drone users to strict regulations arising from traditional “aircraft used in commerce” standards while applying the more liberal “model aircraft” standards to recreational drone users. (See 14 C.F.R. § 91.119 [requiring aircraft used in commerce to stay at 500 feet or more in altitude above rural areas and 1,000 feet above urban areas].) The FAA staunchly defended this system in its appeal of the Pirker case, in which the FAA seeks to overturn the decision of an administrative law judge who ruled the FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of a drone used for commercial photography. So does it make sense for the FAA to take a hard stance towards commercial drones and a more liberal stance towards recreational drone users?
Probably not. Here’s why: