When you leave your house in the morning, you probably aren’t worried about being injured by dangerous drones. However, that may change in the near future. Drone use for both recreation and business purposes is increasing dramatically. Consumer drone sales reached nearly 700,000 in 2015, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. And it’s not just families and enthusiasts vying for airspace. Companies like Amazon and Google are testing drones for product delivery, and Amazon at least is making no secret of their intention to launch a fleet of drones.
With so many new drones hitting the air, there are widespread concerns about the Federal Aviation Commision’s (FAA) ability to enforce regulations for small, unmanned aircraft. Drones are not supposed to fly above 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport, as well as other restricted zones, but it is difficult for officials to locate the operators of drones that break the rules. There have been nearly 1,000 reports of drones interfering with air traffic and flying too close to airports made to the FAA this year.
Drones have been interfering with military operations as well, with at least 35 cases reported. In response to this possible threat to military operations, the FAA recently shut down all model aircraft clubs within 30 miles of Washington, D.C. There was previously a 15-mile no fly zone around D.C.’s National Airport. That has been extended to 30 miles with the FAA citing reasons of national security and aircraft safety. With enthusiasm for drone use so high, this new no-fly zone around a populous urban area will doubtless be difficult to enforce and maintain.
Medical helicopter operators are also concerned about drone interference. A drone in the wrong place at the wrong time could delay or prevent emergency medical teams from reaching a patient or safely landing at the hospital. In one recent incident, a poorly placed drone kept the helicopter from landing at the hospital for nearly 15 minutes – not a trivial amount of time in serious medical emergencies.
There is also cause to be concerned for citizens on the ground. Stories about drones crashing in crowded areas are now commonplace. Most recently in the news, a drone crashed and nearly hit Olympic skier Marcel Hirscher at the World Cup in Italy. The drone, operated by the event’s broadcasters and carrying a heavy television camera, crashed just inches from Hirscher during a slalom run. A fraction of a second’s difference could have resulted in serious injury.
In an effort to stem the flow of these dangerous incidents, the FAA will now require all drones to be registered. Registration began December 21 and drones must be registered by the February 19 deadline. Registration may be of limited use, however. In the case of drone crashes, officials will be able to locate the serial number and find the owner of the drone. Drones that violate regulations without crashing, though, will still be difficult to identify.
Fleets of drones from Amazon and other companies will soon take to the already crowded airspace just under 400 feet. With so many drones in use and so little regulation or enforcement, crashes and dangerous aircraft interference are sure to continue and to increase in frequency.