Back in June, even before the NTSB confirmed its authority, the FAA restricted the use of RC toys and small drones within five miles of an airport. Those who wish to fly their craft within that safety zone must now get permission from the management of the airport and its air traffic control tower. Previously, the restricted area extended only three miles and getting permission was recommended but not mandatory. (If you’re worried you might be flying your drone into prohibited airspace, there’s now an app for that.)
Yet the policy change has done little to alleviate the near misses. The FAA receives on average 25 reports a month of RC model planes or small drones getting close to manned aircraft, spokesperson Les Dorr says. Few sightings involve pilots having to change course to miss a drone, but there have been a few close calls. Indeed, an internal FAA report published last week by The Washington Post listed five near misses involving aircraft operating near airports just in November.
Patrick Egan, drone advocate and editor of sUAS News, acknowledges that the proliferation of cheap drones in domestic airspace poses a big challenge for the FAA. But he also recommends approaching eyewitness accounts about near misses at airports with a bit of skepticism. “In the 1970s, everyone was UFO crazy,” Egan says. “Everything thing they saw in the sky was a UFO. Even the president saw one. I think drones have just become part of the American consciousness.”
As for the FAA’s ability to enforce its regulations with hobbyists, Egan is dubious of that as well. These vehicles are small and easily concealable. They don’t have identifying N-numbers and they stay in the air for only a short time. If there were to be an accident, the operator could just toss away his controller and no one would be the wiser. The rare individual who does gets caught flying recklessly is “usually some dumbass who, when firing up the drone, takes a picture of his own face uploads the video to YouTube,” Egan says, “or someone squeals on him.”
Dorr says the FAA working with law enforcement agencies, industry associations, and pilot communities to “build awareness of unmanned aircraft safety standards, laws and regulatory requirements, and educate users on the safe operation of unmanned aircraft.” Developing an understanding with small drone users might be the FAA’s best move here, as Dorr acknowledges that identifying those who flout the rules “can often be difficult.”