The near-collision between a drone and a commercial jet over Florida has added urgency to efforts by regulators to impose new rules on the proliferation of unmanned aircraft.
Across the U.S., drones monitor crops, snap real-estate photographs, inspect roofs, shoot commercials and perform other tasks, according to people in the unmanned aircraft industry.
Pilots of those drones are defying seven-year-old restrictions on commercial unmanned aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has said the curbs are needed for public safety. But limited resources and legal complications have led to scattershot enforcement by the agency, emboldening even more drone operators.
The risks caused by the increase in unmanned flights were underscored by the agency’s revelation last week that a pilot of an American Airlines Group Inc. regional jet told officials in March that he nearly hit a drone about 2,300 feet above the ground while approaching a Tallahassee, Fla., airport.
The drone’s flying altitude was unusually high, since the FAA requires small types of unmanned aircraft to remain below 400 feet. Based on the description, the drone appeared to be a small model aircraft, but a senior FAA official warned that the drone could have done serious damage, such as if it were sucked into a jet engine.
Some proponents of unmanned aircraft worry that the near-collision could spark a public backlash and perhaps spur U.S. and state regulators to impose tougher restrictions than drone users claim are necessary.
The FAA plans to propose in November, several years later than initially projected, new rules on how small drones could be used legally for commercial purposes. It could take several more years for the rules to become final.
Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s unmanned-aircraft office, said last week that those rules will “ensure that risks are managed appropriately.” The issue “can’t get any more important to the FAA than it is today,” he said. “But unfortunately, the regulatory process is very slow and deliberative.”
An FAA spokeswoman said that to protect “people in the air and on the ground,” introducing drones into U.S. airspace “must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first.”
Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who runs a drone-journalism program that got a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA last year, said he is concerned that the “longer it takes to have the rules of the road in place, the more the technology advances and the cheaper it gets, the closer we get to some knucklehead doing something dumb and hurting someone.”
The FAA requires every non-recreational drone user in the U.S. to seek its approval. So far, the FAA has authorized only two commercial drones, both in Alaska.
Separately, the agency has fined two drone pilots, both for alleged reckless flying. In March, an administrative law judge overturned the first fine—a $10,000 penalty—ruling that the drone policy was a safety guideline and the agency had no legal authority to enforce it. The FAA is appealing.
“Fewer and fewer people seem deterred by threats,” said one federal official. “Nobody is asking the FAA how to proceed, so it’s turned into a modern version of the Wild West, where some people think anything is OK.”
The agency estimates there could be as many as 7,500 drones in U.S. skies within five years of the new rules. People in the unmanned aircraft industry say that estimate is far too low.
For example, Chris Anderson, chief executive of California drone maker 3D Robotics Inc. and the former editor of Wired magazine, sells about 2,000 autopilot systems a month to customers around the world who want to build their own drones.
DJI Innovations, a Chinese maker of recreational and commercial drones, sells as least 10 times as many drones, Mr. Anderson estimates. DJI declined to provide figures but said its sales have at least tripled each year since 2009.
The FAA’s unmanned-aircraft office is run by several dozen people, whose tasks include drafting rules and vetting permits for public entities such as police departments to fly drones in designated airspace. Inspectors check into reports of reckless flying or commercial use.
Some drone operators aren’t shy about flouting the current rules. Mike Fortin, president of an Orlando, Fla., drone company that films concerts and TV commercials, received an email from an FAA official in January telling him that his business was violating FAA policy.
“My response to the FAA was to piss off,” he said. The FAA hasn’t followed up. If the agency sends a formal cease-and-desist letter, “I’d probably frame it, hang it up on the wall and keep going about my everyday business,” Mr. Fortin said. The FAA declined to comment on the incident.
In some cases, the FAA seems to be looking the other way. Mr. Williams, head of the FAA’s unmanned-aircraft office, said officials generally consider farmers who use drones to monitor crops as hobbyists. Hobbyists are traditionally allowed to use drones.
Companies might soon be allowed to apply for FAA certification for drones to be used in farming, filmmaking and inspections of power lines and certain parts of oil and gas plants, Mr. Williams said. Those uses aren’t allowed under the current restrictions.
Drone Dudes, of Los Angeles, has used drones for months to film commercials for companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kia Motor Corp. ”We haven’t heard a peep” from the FAA, said Eric Maloney, head of production at Drone Dudes.
Brian Emfinger, a photojournalist for TV station KATV in Little Rock, Ark., got a mixed response from the FAA after using a 2.2-pound drone last month to film the aftermath of tornadoes. The video has racked up about 2.4 million views on YouTube.
KATV news director Nick Genty said an FAA spokesman notified him that the station’s drone use was an FAA violation. Still, “they definitely didn’t tell us to stop,” Mr. Genty said, adding that KATV will continue to use drones for reporting.
The FAA said it regulates the use of drones, not how news organizations use footage.