In March, the pilot of a nine-passenger Cessna C-208 flying southeast of Portland International Airport reported to air traffic controllers the appearance of "a stationary object, possibly a white UAS quad copter," hovering off to the right. It was far enough away for the pilot not to definitively identify it as a drone, but the small object was holding its position at the same altitude as the Cessna: 2,200 feet.
"No evasive maneuvers were taken," a log kept by the Federal Aviation Administration shows.
The same month, the pilot of a small Grumman American AA1 plane flying at 4,000 feet above PDX reported to the FAA that a black drone was hovering above PDX at an estimated 4,300 feet – not close enough to the Grumman to trigger alarm but reportable as a surprise. "(The pilot) did not have to take evasive maneuver to avoid the drone," the FAA's summary report shows. "The drone was very small.... The pilot thought it might have four rotors."
The list of drone sightings by private and commercial airline pilots nationally shows airspace near airports to be crowded. It's ample evidence of the necessity of the new rule, announced this week by the Federal Aviation Administration, that all lightweight drones – from a half pound in weight up to 55 pounds – be registered as aircraft subject to regulation by the federal government. The rule is aimed at the burgeoning recreational drone market, increasingly affordable to weekend duffers, and it applies to operators aged 13 and above.
"Unmanned aircraft operators are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the unveiling of the new rule. His euphemistic comments were plain, however, in the meaning: An off-course drone could, without intending it, bring a plane down, and folks should know before operating a drone of its lethal potential.
Separately, designers of jet engines, who historically have fed birds into spinning rotors to establish an engine's capacity to withstand off-course flying things, are reported to be considering the drone test. And the fear of drone use by terrorists lurks, taking root in America's use of large bomb-carrying drones to remotely destroy war zone targets.
The FAA's new civilian requirement is hardly onerous: Registration showing ownership details, and requiring a $5 fee, is completed online, with the result an identification number is issued for application to the drone for sight verification. A recreational drone is never to leave the line of sight of its operator, meanwhile, and rules requiring small drones to keep clear of airports by a distance of 5 miles and which prohibit flight at altitudes above 400 feet remain in place.
As sensible as it is, the rule provoked a divided reaction. Drone manufacturers and drone user groups protested the rule as burdensome, while others complained the rule could curb freedoms – as if the air space were up for grabs. That's unfortunate. Drones are exploding in the marketplace as a preferred recreation, with, federal officials say, the sale of hundreds of thousands of them anticipated this holiday season. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Nobody occupying the skies above should feel untraceable for it. Lives depend on it.
This is to say nothing of the separate but unresolved and complex issue of personal privacy – or the threat posed to citizens by remotely operated "eyes in the sky" – as inexpensive drones are increasingly equipped with video capability capturing immense fields of information. For less than $150 at WalMart, for example, it is possible to buy a four-prop helicopter that allows live streaming to the base station while recording video or still images.
Much is yet to be done as drone traffic thickens. A presidential memo was issued in February directing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to address privacy, accountability and transparency issues arising from private and commercial drone use in the National Airspace System. Separately, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a stickler on privacy issues, cosponsors a bill in Congress now in committee that would require the federal government to obtain a warrant before conducting aerial surveillance in the U.S. – a rational measure that protects privacy while demanding responsibility in drone use.
For now, however, it's enough that anyone putting a flying object up in the sky avoid anonymity and do so accountably. More and more difficult rules are in the making. This one, judging by the reports of pilots at major airports, is a no-brainer.
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