Pilot encounters with drones are on pace to at least quadruple to more than 1,000 this year, highlighting a growing threat to U.S. aviation by unmanned aircraft.
There were 650 cases reported to the Federal Aviation Administration through Aug. 9 compared with 238 in 2014, the agency reported Wednesday night. Assuming the reports continue at the current rate, there would be more than four times the safety incidents by the end of this year.
The reports of drones spotted near traditional aircraft come from pilots on private planes and helicopters, as well as crews aboard airliners, according to an FAA release. FAA rules prohibit drones from flying near airports or at altitudes where piloted aircraft operate.
Regulators are concerned that a collision between a drone and a plane, which could easily occur at a speed of 200 miles (320 kilometers) an hour or more, may damage an aircraft or its engines. Encounters with drones can also cause pilots to be distracted from other critical tasks.
Industry groups estimate that as many as 500,000 drones have been sold in the U.S., many of which are capable of flying thousands of feet above the ground.
In recent weeks, drones have been spotted by airline pilots near airports in Newark, New Jersey, New York and Minneapolis, according to the FAA. Last month, there were about a dozen cases of drones flying near aircraft attempting to fight wildfires in California, forcing groundings and delays in battling the blazes, said Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is known.
In July, pilots reported 137 incidents compared with 36 for the same month in 2014. There were 138 such cases in June.
FAA enforcement cases against drone operators haven’t risen with incident totals. The agency has settled five civil cases involving unmanned flights that violated regulations, according to FAA data. One involved a Swiss citizen who flew over the University of Virginia campus filming a promotional video.
The increase in incidents comes in spite of an effort by the FAA and the drone industry to educate users about safety. The group, called Know Before You Fly, has a website with guidance on how to operate drones.
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