FAA: number of drones seen nearly quadrupled since last year

BALTIMORE -
The FAA and airline pilots say drones could potentially cause a mid-air collision, and after the number of them being spotted in the skies nearly quadrupled from last year to this year....there's some real concern.
 
The FAA's been working to develop a hard set of rules for years. Drones are used mostly by hobbyists, but they've become cheaper and, thus, more available.
 
It's that fact that's got some people keeping keen eyes pointed toward the sky.
 
Ross Shaffer and Skye de Moya started SkyeCam Productions two years ago. They use drones, sometimes called UAV's or UAS's, for aerial photography -- a commercial exemption under current FAA guidelines.
 
"We're able to check if there's a leak in a roof. We're able to help sell homes with real estate agents," said Shaffer.
 
The pair takes images with their drones using controllers; one manages the direction, altitude and speed of the drone, and the other controls the on-board camera, so they can see the images in real time. The field, they say, has changed drastically just in recent years.
 
"It went from not many people being familiar with what drones were, and asking us what that thing in the sky was, to everyone knowing what a drone is and now the most common is how much did you pay for that and where can I buy one?" de Moya said.
 
The types of drones available vary nearly as much as the places you can buy them -- anywhere from local hobby shops to online stores, which mean just about anyone can fly them, a fact that's also causing some issues.
 
Jamie Giandomenico is a board member of the Maryland Airport Managers Association.
 
"The most obvious challenge is [the chance of a] collision," he said. 
 
In the time since drones have become more available, the FAA's developed guidelines for their usage. A draft of proposed regulations includes a number of restrictions, but among them, anyone flying a drone cannot fly it above 400 ft, it cannot be flown further than an operators line of sight, and it also can't be flown within five miles of an airport, but we found many people are ignoring all three rules.
 
"Whether its large, hub-type air service airports, or general aviation airports, that is very concerning," Giandomenico said.
 
From Nov. 2014 to late Aug. 2015, the FAA reports six UAV's seen near airports in Maryland. One was seen within three miles of an airport.
 
Giandomenico said  the six sightings reported in Maryland could be even higher because not every sighting is reported to law enforcement or the FAA -- especially at smaller airports, which in many cases, are unmanned.
 
According to Giandomenico, six of the state's 36 public use airports are staffed with control towers.
 
In Washington DC, 18 were seen during the same period, including one within a mile from Reagan National.
 
In Virginia, there was just one seen, but it was seen at an estimated height of 1,500 ft.
 
The potential for a mid-air collision between a drone and a commercial airplane is enough to worry anyone, but Giandomenico, with a background in airplane inspection, said a drone being sucked into the engine of a commercial jet would be akin to the flock of geese that caused the "Miracle on the Hudson" in 2009 in New York City.
 
"At the speeds they're traveling, even a small object can disable an aircraft, or an engine, or incapacitate a pilot," said Giandomenico, who himself is a long-time radio-controlled aircraft enthusiast. He also said that's why education and strict controls are important.
 
In addition to their business usage for aerial photography, the folks at SkyeCam also teach classes on the correct ways to use drones, even offering modifications, building in controls that make it impossible for anyone to violate airspace near airports.
 
Currently, the FAA does not make these controls or the lessons mandatory.
 
Shaffer said he hopes a small minority of scofflaws don't bring down a growing field full of potential.
 
"It's to protect the user, to protect the hobby and to protect America's sanity that these aren't going to cause harm," he said.
 
The FAA is still in the process of developing its drone guidelines, so far whittling their usage into categories for hobbyists and those using them for commercial purposes.
 
They declined our request for an interview, but said they do have the authority to issue civil penalties for people who violate their guidelines.
 
Meantime, the FAA administrator has stated revised rules could be ready within a year.
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