Surge in Drone Safety Reports Prompts FAA ‘Emergency’ Action

By Alan Levin | October 16, 2017

Reports of safety incidents involving civilian drones have surged to an average of 250 a month, leading to a federal “emergency” action to approve drone flights in restricted areas, according to a government notice seeking new procedures for the craft.

There is so much pent-up demand for obtaining special permission to fly drones in restricted airspace, that the Federal Aviation Administration says it can’t keep up. The FAA says drone users are flying without approval because of the delays.

“The time necessary to process these requests has resulted in an increase in safety reports due to non-compliant operations,” the agency said in its notice.

Drone safety incidents are up compared to last year, according to FAA’s notice. Reports of drones flying improperly or getting too close to other aircraft are averaging 250 a month, this year, up by more than 50 percent from last year. They averaged 159 per month from February through September 2016, according to the FAA.

Soaring demand for drone flights made possible by regulations finalized last year have created a backlog of requests to the FAA and have become a nuisance to the agency’s air-traffic controllers, who often receive direct telephone requests to operate the craft.

“These calls create distractions for air traffic control management,” the agency said in the Federal Register notice this week.

The FAA notice comes just days after the first documented mid-air collision between a drone and a traditional aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a Sept. 21 incident that occurred near Staten Island, New York, when an Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter struck a small drone.

While the investigation is in the early stages and no enforcement action has been announced, the drone was almost certainly in violation of FAA rules when the impact occurred.

Image: DataWing Aerial Analytics

Civilian drones are supposed to stay within 400 feet of the surface, but preliminary information from the pilots indicates they were at about 500 feet, according to Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buccino, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In addition, almost all areas around New York City are off limits for routine drone flights because of the proximity to the area’s four busy airports and local helicopter traffic.

The device was a Phantom 4, a roughly three-pound (1.38 kilograms) model made by SZ DJI Technology Co., the China-based company that is the world’s largest civilian drone manufacturer.

The FAA said it wants to sidestep normal regulatory requirements so it can more quickly adopt an automated system for approving low-level drone flights in restricted areas. The agency has created what it calls the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, which takes five minutes for approval via computer instead of months.

Since adopting new regulations expanding drone flights last year, the FAA has received 20,566 requests for special flight authorizations. The agency has more than 6,000 pending requests because it can take 60 to 90 days to process them, it said in the notice. That could swell to 25,000 pending requests within the next six months, FAA predicted.

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