The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that it will explore ways to spot "rogue" drone operations that might collide with planes around airports.
The agency said it has launched an initial research program to evaluate drone detection technology at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"We face many difficult challenges as we integrate rapidly evolving [drone] technology into our complex and highly regulated airspace," said Marke Gibson, FAA senior adviser on UAS Integration. "This effort at JFK reflects everyone's commitment to safety."
The FAA said there were 764 drones sighted near airplanes last year, despite current guidelines prohibiting flying drones near planes or within five miles of an airport unless the control tower has been contacted first. Drones also are supposed to fly below 400 feet, stay away from stadiums and remain in sight of the operator. (A report that a British Airways plane had been struck by a drone on approach to London's Heathrow Airport later was discounted.)
The FAA began evaluating a drone detection system being used by the FBI this month. The tests at JFK examined the ability of the system to identify five types of drones, including common rotorcraft and more advanced fixed-wing drones.
"We applaud the FBI and FAA for their efforts to detect and track unmanned aerial systems (UAS)," said Thomas Bosco, Port Authority of New York Aviation Director. "We look forward to supporting continued US Government efforts to identify and deploy countermeasures to neutralize the threat posed by rogue UASs."
There has been virtual consensus in Congress that steps must be taken to prevent drone-airplane collisions.
"Unless more is done, it's not if an accident will happen, it's when," Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said at a hearing of the House subcommittee on aviation last year.
"We don't really know what happens when you suck a quadcopter [drone] into a jet engine," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who pointed out that a four-pound bird hits a jet moving at 260 mph with the force of 12 tons.
The FAA last year released proposed regulations for drones' weighing less than 55 pounds. They require that the devices remain within the operator's line of sight, cannot operate above anyone not involved with drone operation, can be used only during daylight hours, must yield right of way to other aircraft, can't move faster than 100 miles per hour or at above 500 feet, and that an operator must contact air traffic controllers if operating in airspace they control.
It's estimated that 700,000 drones were sold in the US last year.
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