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We Said Go Slow on Drones. We Weren’t Kidding

By Ed Wytkind

Do you think it’s a problem when a commercial aircraft has to climb unexpectedly to avoid a drone or when drones get in the way of first responders who are at the scene of an emergency?

In May, a passenger plane nearly collided with a drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS), as it was making its final approach into New York’s LaGuardia Airport. And just recently, a commercial airliner was landing at JFK International Airport when the pilot saw a drone off to the left of his aircraft.

Last month, drones temporarily halted firefighting operations on a brush fire that has now scorched more than 3,000 acres of land in California. That same fire burned dozens of vehicles on a San Bernardino freeway, creating a horrific scene as motorists abandoned their cars and ran for safety. According to reports, firefighters had to wait nearly 30 minutes before they could air-drop water onto the inferno because five unmanned aircraft clogged airways above the scene. That’s a problem.

The drone incidents are mounting as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigates them while it simultaneously tries to figure out the proper regulatory rules for drone use. While there hasn’t been a serious injury in any reported drone incident, there is little doubt that we should not open the skies to widespread commercial and recreational drone use (oh, and whatever those drones were doing hovering over brush fires) until we understand the challenge and fully implement enforceable safety rules. Our message to the FAA: don’t succumb to pressure from big corporations like Amazon, politicians and lobby groups until we can safely and effectively integrate drones into our National Airspace System (NAS).

If drones are going to share our NAS with professional pilots, drone operators need to be trained like pilots. That includes having sufficient knowledge of weather effects, airport operations, radio communication and safety procedures.

It’s just as imperative that air traffic controllers — the people who are responsible for safely separating air traffic within the NAS — are able to see and identify drones so they can effectively direct commercial aircraft. You see, having the proper protocols and safety rules in place is only important if you want to avoid midair collisions, or protect against drones interfering with firefighters who are trying to save lives.

There is little doubt that the drone onslaught into our economy is on its way. While there is more to be said about how and why drones will be deployed commercially (more on that in a future blog), the task right now is to ensure that we don’t open the floodgates to their unsafe use. This isn’t about obstructing business opportunities or blocking the legitimate recreational use of UAS – it’s about keeping the most complex air space on the planet safe for travelers, workers and communities.

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