Drone Sightings: FAA Logs 583 Reports of UAVs Near Airports

WASHINGTON—The Federal Aviation Administration released an updated list of pilot, air traffic controller and citizen reports of possible encounters with unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. The latest report (an .xlxs download) covers Aug. 22, 2015 through Jan. 31, 2016 and includes 583 reported sightings.

The FAA said reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically since 2014, and now stand at around 100 a month. Safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is a top priority for the FAA, which is under pressure from Congress to produce a set of rules to regulate drones. The FAA reauthorization bill on its way to the full Senate includes several recommendations, including traffic management and classification systems for drones. (See “Drone Delivery, Unlicensed Spectrum Use, Sent to Senate Floor,” March 17, 2016)

Most of the sightings reported in the FAA’s latest list were near manned aircraft and airports. One dated Aug. 21, 2015, involved a helicopter spotting a drone flying between the Wynn and Trump hotels in Las Vegas at an altitude of approximately 500 feet. Another pilot flying at 7,000 feet off of Sandy Hook, N.J., that same day spotted a black and purple drone 30 feet off the right side of the aircraft. Drones are authorized only to 400 feet. On Jan. 31 of this year, a Reston, Va., man reported that a three- to four-foot white quadcopter drone was “sitting on the driveway of his home.” The FAA said it wants to send a “clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal.”

Unauthorized drone operation may be result in “stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time,” the agency said.

“We have a number of educational initiatives with our government and industry partners to teach drone operators how to fly safely, including the drone registry we launched last December,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “But enforcement goes hand-in-hand with education, and we will take action against anyone who operates irresponsibly to the full extent of the law.”

More than 406,000 people have registered since the registry went live in late December, the FAA said.

For current information on where unmanned aircraft can be flown safely, the FAA has a free app, B4UFLY for iOS and Android smartphones, designed to provide current information on areas where drones are safe to fly.

DJI, the Shenzhen, China-based manufacturer that has thus for cornered the drone market released a statement following the FAA’s sighting report. “Keeping the skies safe is DJI’s top priority, and we firmly believe drones are a valuable addition to the airspace for both commercial and recreational purposes,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of Policy and Legal Affairs. “The FAA’s latest list of unverified reports includes many instances where pilots and people on the ground simply mentioned seeing drones in the air. We want to ensure the public and policymakers put these reports in context with the millions of flight hours that drones safely navigate through airspace for businesses, farms, hobbyists, photographers and government agencies. Many of those drones have helped save lives in situations involving fires, floods, and missing people.”

The FAA anticipates annual drones sales to reach 2.5 million this year and 7 million by 2020.