The flying drone, used by the military to attack terrorists in the Mideast, might pose an even greater threat to the United States. Surprisingly, the domestic hazard comes mainly from hobbyists operating small versions of the remote-controlled devices.
For example, drones repeatedly interrupted efforts to douse Southern California wildfires this summer, forcing planes and helicopters to be grounded for fear of collisions with the small aircraft. Fire suppression efforts were compromised and property was destroyed as a result. Ultimately, large rewards were offered to identify the drone pilots, who presumably were streaming video from the fires.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post cites Federal Aviation Administration reports showing that drones in U.S. airspace are producing an ever-increasing threat to passenger aircraft.
The drone has become a menace near airports, in particular, but also thousands of feet in the sky.
So far, national safeguards aren’t in place, even though the number of near-misses has greatly increased since 2014. The Post reports that the FAA has been notified of 700 incidents so far this year. That’s three times last year’s total.
The FAA, incidentally, didn’t provide those figures to the Post, despite requests by the newspaper. “So far, the FAA has kept basic details of most of this year’s incidents under wraps, declining to release reports that are ordinarily public records and that would spotlight where and when the close calls occurred,” the Post reported.
Instead, the Post relied on documents leaked by an unnamed “government official who objected to the FAA’s secrecy.”
It’s a good case for whistleblower protection — something that has been sadly lacking under the current administration.
Many of the incidents occurred near busy airports, where drones aren’t supposed to fly. And the documents cited pilot reports of drones flying at astonishing altitudes, as high as 12,000 feet. Existing regulations limit drones to no more than 400 feet.
Meanwhile, the Post cited a Department of Homeland Security bulletin listing more than 500 cases of drones flying over “sensitive sites and critical installations.” Count the White House among that number.
In January, a small drone crashed on the White House grounds, revealing an unexpected vulnerability. Another drone was reported flying near the White House in April. And a drone aircraft was observed hovering in March near a golf course in Florida where the president was playing.
So far, the drone incidents haven’t resulted in a catastrophe, unless you count the interference with California firefighters.
But a collision with a windshield or the engine of an aircraft — large or small — could be big trouble. And while potential accidents are the main worry, there is a nagging apprehension that terrorists could exploit drones for their own purposes.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is leading efforts in Congress to deal with the public safety menace, so far without success.
Meanwhile, the California Legislature is considering a bill to allow drones to be shot down if necessary.
It shouldn’t take a serious accident to spur the enactment of national safeguards to public safety threatened by the domestic operation of drone aircraft.
The message is clear. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.