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Uptick in near-misses follows civilian drones' rise in popularity

Drones fly during a battle demonstration at a Bloomberg tech summit in Sausalito, Calif., on June 9. There has been a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian airplanes and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace.

On the same day last month, airline pilots trying to land at two of the nation's busiest airports got on their radios to report the unnerving sight of small rogue drones buzzing at high altitudes.

In the first incident on May 29, the pilot of a commercial airliner descending toward LaGuardia Airport saw what appeared to be a black drone with a 10-to-15-foot wingspan about 5,500 feet above Lower Manhattan, according to a previously undisclosed report filed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the second, two airliners separately approaching Los Angeles International Airport soared past what they described as a drone or remote-controlled aircraft the size of a trash can at an altitude of 6,500 feet, FAA records show.

The records do not name the airlines involved or say how close the aircraft came to the drones when they flew past. FAA officials said their inspectors could not track down the unregistered drones or determine who was flying them. "In many cases, radar data is not available and the operators cannot be identified," the agency said in a statement.

The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian airplanes and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace. Hazardous occurrences are becoming more frequent as more drones — legal and illegal — take to the skies, according to a year-long investigation by The Washington Post:

  • In 15 cases over the past two years, drones flew dangerously close to airports or passenger aircraft, including the incidents in New York and Los Angeles, according to reports submitted to the FAA. On May 3, the pilot of a commercial airliner preparing to land in Atlanta reported a small drone with four legs and bright lights "in close proximity" to his plane, according to the FAA records. The agency recently disclosed that the pilot of a US Airways plane reported a near-collision with a drone or remotely controlled model aircraft over Tallahassee Regional Airport on March 22 in Florida.
  • A different set of records suggests that risky midair encounters are even more common. A NASA database of confidential complaints filed by pilots and air-traffic controllers has recorded 50 other reports of close calls or improper flight operations involving drones over the past decade.
  • Civilian drones flown with the FAA's permission and under its scrutiny are also susceptible to crashes. Since November 2009, law enforcement agencies, universities and other registered drone users have reported 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents, according to FAA records.

The problem is worsening just as the federal government is preparing to lift barriers that could flood the country's already congested skies with thousands of remotely controlled aircraft. Under a law passed two years ago, Congress ordered the FAA to issue rules legalizing drones for commercial purposes by September 2015 — the first step in a new era of aviation that will eventually allow drones of all sizes to fly freely in the national airspace, sharing the same airports as regular planes.

Congress imposed dual mandates on the FAA that the agency has struggled to reconcile. Under the law, the agency must draft rules for drones as soon as possible so businesses can exploit their economic potential. The FAA must also ensure that safety standards are not compromised and passenger aircraft are not imperiled.

The FAA is facing pressure to move faster from drone manufacturers, the military, members of Congress and many companies that see remotely controlled airplanes as a breakthrough technology. The drone industry complains that it is losing $27 million in economic benefits a day while the FAA prepares regulations for certifying drones and licensing pilots.

The FAA says it is moving as quickly as it can.

"I completely understand that there is significant potential, there's significant benefit, there's great things that unmanned aircraft can do. We need to be convinced that they can do so safely," Michael Huerta, the FAA's administrator, said in an interview.

"Every day in America people are getting on airplanes. Every day people are seeing airplanes in the sky," Huerta added. "But they're not really worried a lot about whether it's safe. It's their expectation that these things, that unmanned aircraft flying around in our airspace, will meet that same level of safety. And we owe that to them."

The longer the FAA takes to finalize its rules, the more rogue drones are taking to the skies.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, small satellite-guided drones with powerful miniature cameras can be bought online for less than $500. Flying drones as a hobby is permitted as long as operators keep them below 400 feet, away from populated areas and at least three miles from an airport, according to the FAA. But those restrictions are being flouted and ignored.

On May 5, a quad-copter — a drone with four rotors — crashed into the 30th floor of St. Louis' Metropolitan Square building, the city's tallest. In March, the FAA fined a Brooklyn man $2,200 for striking two Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers with his quad-copter before it nearly hit a pedestrian. In August, a small drone with multiple rotors crashed into the grandstand at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie County, injuring three spectators.

Even drone advocates worry that the skies are becoming a free-for-all.

"We have to understand that the industry is at risk because of illegal drone usage," Krista Ochs, a General Dynamics executive, said last month at a drone-industry conference in Orlando, Florida. "If we have a major catastrophe that involves some type of midair collision, it could set us back years."

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, legislation that ordered the federal government to "safely accelerate" the integration of civilian drones into the busiest airspace in the world.

At the time, the military had been flying drones overseas for more than a decade, revolutionizing warfare by keeping pilots on the ground and out of harm's way. Defense contractors who invented the technology saw even bigger potential to sell drones to private businesses and other government agencies. Industry groups projected a market with $8 billion in annual revenue.

Until then, the FAA had been moving slowly and cautiously, issuing a handful of permits for the military, law enforcement agencies and universities to fly drones under restrictive conditions. The new law ordered the FAA to hurry it up. Lawmakers set a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, for the FAA to develop a comprehensive plan and allow civilian drones to begin flying on a more regular basis.

The FAA has approved six sites across the country to test drones and produce data that will shape safety standards. Officials said they will first propose rules for drones weighing 55 pounds or less. Regulations for larger aircraft will take significantly longer. Both sets of rules could take years to finalize. In an interim step, FAA officials say they may grant permits to filmmakers, farmers, and the oil and gas industry to use small drones under limited circumstances.

Manufacturers of drones and businesses that want to buy them are losing patience. They warn that foreign companies will steal the market if the FAA does not act swiftly. "We have got to be able to understand what the standards must be, and we have got to start fielding this technology," Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the drone industry's trade association, said in a May 30 speech to the Aero Club in Washington.

Pro-drone lawmakers are also frustrated. "I am desperate to see this potential unleashed," Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation panel, said at the drone-industry conference in Orlando. "Sometimes I think government bureaucrats are too cautious in holding people back."

The FAA is feeling the heat from other corners. Civil libertarians are predicting a surveillance state run amok if the FAA does not issue privacy guidelines for government drone operators — an issue that Congress did not address in the 2012 law.

Many small-aircraft pilots and air-traffic controllers argue that allowing drones to fly alongside regular planes makes no sense. Greg Cromer, a private pilot from Stephens City, Virginia, submitted a letter to the FAA saying that he was "vehemently opposed" to the whole idea.

"I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or kitchen appliance," he wrote.

Posing the most immediate threat to air traffic is the proliferation of small, unauthorized drones that can reach previously unimaginable heights.

On Sept. 22, while at an altitude of 2,300 feet over Phoenix, a pilot reported a near-collision with a black-and-white drone the size of a basketball, according to records the FAA released with many details redacted. The pilot reported that the drone was 200 feet ahead and closing in. The pilot swerved left, and the two aircraft missed each other by 50 feet.

Small drones usually do not show up on air controllers' radar screens and often go undetected by traffic collision avoidance systems installed on other planes. Pilots, in incidents to date, were caught unaware until they peered out their windows and spotted the unidentified flying objects at uncomfortably close range.

On March 25, 2012, a pilot was flying 11 miles northwest of Houston at 2,000 feet when he saw what he described as a drone just 100 feet below his plane. The mysterious aircraft disappeared in a blur before the pilot could get a better look. He notified the control tower, but it could not find the drone on radar.

The elusiveness of small drones and the absence of a registration or licensing system make it extremely difficult for the FAA to hold culprits accountable.

The agency has imposed fines against two drone operators. In addition to the Brooklyn man, in 2011 the FAA penalized a videographer $10,000 for using a drone to produce a promotional film about the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The FAA accused the videographer, Raphael Pirker, of flying a 56-inch-long foam drone recklessly, swooping close to people on the ground. In March, after Pirker challenged the fine and said he was operating in a safe manner, a federal administrative-law judge overturned the penalty, finding that the FAA had exceeded its regulatory authority.

The agency has appealed, but the ruling cast further doubt on the agency's ability to police drone flights until it can finalize the new rules mandated by Congress. Last month, The Post and other news organizations filed a legal brief in support of Pirker, arguing that the FAA's de facto ban on commercial drones was overly restrictive and threatened journalists' First Amendment rights to use drones to gather the news.

The NASA database suggests that dangerous brushes between drones and passenger aircraft are more common than the FAA acknowledges.

In July 2013, a commercial air carrier was approaching LaGuardia Airport at 7,000 feet when it spotted a small, black object zipping toward it, just 500 feet below the larger aircraft. The crew thought it was a drone but "couldn't really make out much more than that because it happened so fast."

The first officer reported the incident anonymously to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database project run by NASA. The system encourages pilots, air-traffic controllers and others in the world of aviation to submit confidential reports about unsafe incidents without fear of getting entangled in enforcement actions by the FAA. Precise dates and other identifying details are stripped out of the reports before they are posted in the publicly accessible database.

Since 2005, the system has received 50 reports of unsafe incidents involving drones. Some were minor infractions or deviations from airspace regulations. Others were near-disasters.

Many of the incidents involved military drones flying outside restricted airspace. In March 2013, the pilot of a Bombardier CRJ-200 regional airliner was descending toward the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport in Virginia when the captain saw something that looked like a hawk circling in the distance.

It wasn't.

"A few seconds later, what we thought looked like a hawk took the shape of an aircraft with wings," the captain reported. As the distance between the two aircraft narrowed, the Bombardier turned right to avoid a collision. The drone turned, too. "For about five seconds it seemed to chase us," the captain said in his report.

The drone flew "extremely erratically," performing rolls and loops before passing to the left of the passenger aircraft. Three military helicopters also flew by at a safer distance. The angry jetliner captain called the airport to complain about the "careless and reckless" maneuvering of the drone pilot and demanded to know who was responsible. Airport officials responded that "they could not officially tell us what it was," the pilot reported.

One month earlier, at another Virginia airport, controllers were similarly evasive after the pilot of a corporate jet reported a near miss with what he suspected was a drone. The pilot was descending toward Leesburg Executive Airport, about 35 miles from Washington, when his traffic collision avoidance system rang an alarm — another aircraft had suddenly closed within 200 feet.

The jet's first officer looked out and saw a gray aircraft with a twin boom and a long wing, "different from any normal light aircraft I have ever seen." The captain asked air-traffic controllers whether it was a drone, "given our proximity to Washington." A supervisor came on the on the line to acknowledge that controllers were tracking the aircraft but would not say what it was. "If, in fact, this was a UAV," the first officer wrote in his report, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicle, "then the obvious solution is to keep UAVs out of civilian airspace."

Chris Stephenson, an operations coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, described the pending integration of drones into the national airspace as "a tsunami headed for the front porch." He predicted that it would take several years to devise reliable technology that would allow large drones to take off and land from the same airports as passenger planes.

In the short term, however, small rogue drones are presenting a bigger challenge. Stephenson said it was his personal opinion that the FAA may need to regulate the sale of cheap, remotely controlled aircraft to further discourage unlicensed operators from flying in risky areas.

"The FAA's got a big load to take care of because these things are running away from them," he said.

Even FAA-approved drones that fly under carefully monitored conditions are susceptible to breakdowns and accidents.

On Jan. 27, the generator failed on a drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on a surveillance mission over the Pacific Ocean. The Predator B drone — a civilian version of the Air Force's advanced Reaper aircraft, with a 66-foot wingspan — lacked enough battery power to return to its base in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The pilots decided to ditch the $12 million aircraft into international waters, about 20 miles southwest of San Diego, according to FAA and Customs and Border Protection officials.

The accident was one of 23 FAA-approved drones operated by civilian agencies and universities that have crashed since November 2009, according to previously undisclosed FAA records.

The FAA has granted certificates to dozens of federal departments, law enforcement agencies and universities to fly civilian drones, subject to restrictions on where and when they can operate.

Civilian agencies have reported 236 unsafe or abnormal incidents to the FAA since 2009, the records show. The vast majority of incidents involved drones flown by Customs and Border Protection, which has accounted for more than three-quarters of all flight hours by FAA-certified drones.

After the loss of the aircraft that crashed in January, Customs and Border Protection now operates a fleet of nine unarmed Predator B's from bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota. The agency's drone surveillance program began in 2005 but got off to a ragged start. One drone crashed 100 yards from a house in Nogales, Arizona, in April 2006, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to chide the agency for "providing a minimal amount of operational oversight."

NTSB records show that three Predator B's belonging to Customs and Border Protection have been involved in previously unpublicized hard landings that damaged the aircraft. A spokesman for the border agency declined to comment.

Civilian drones are vulnerable to another safety threat: hacking.

Drones rely on GPS signals to navigate and are controlled by pilots or operators on the ground via a two-way radio transmission link.

The military protects the communications and navigation links it uses to control drones with highly advanced encryption technology. Civilian drones, however, generally rely on unencrypted satellite links and radio transmissions that can be hacked, jammed or spoofed.

In June 2012, a University of Texas at Austin professor of aerospace engineering and a team of students gathered at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to perform a demonstration. Before the eyes of officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the team of academics used a hand-built device to stealthily seize control of, or spoofed, an $80,000 Hornet rotorcraft drone flying about a kilometer in the distance.

The team transmitted false signals that fooled the drone into thinking it was flying high when it fact it was plummeting toward the ground. The spoofers from Texas changed course at the last minute and averted a crash.

Todd Humphreys, the professor who led the team, said spoofing a drone is not simple. It took him and his students about three years to perfect their technique. But he said rapid improvements in technology are making the task progressively easier.

In an interview, Humphreys said it would not be cheap or easy to build defenses against hackers. If the FAA permits widespread commercial drone traffic before effective solutions are in place, he predicted, "the hackers will come out of the woodwork."

The most pressing concern, he said, are the large Predator B drones that federal Border Patrol agents fly along the long borders with Canada and Mexico. Humphreys said he is skeptical that Homeland Security officials have secured the navigation links well enough to thwart hackers.

"They've never offered any evidence of that, and I don't know how that can be true," he said. "It's a huge vulnerability."
 

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