GREENSBORO, N.C. — No doubt you've seen or heard them buzzing across the sky. The low hum of drones seems to get louder by the day. So have the calls for more ways to keep them from jeopardizing airplanes.
"There have been cases where pilots have taken some evasive action,” said Chris Oswald, Senior Vice President of Airports Council International North America. The group represents airports, trying to make them safer.
"We're most concerned on the security front from those that might have intent to disrupt or endanger lives or property at airports," said Oswald.
Oswald said his biggest fear is a drone terrorist attack at an airport. It’s a fear many thought would play out at the London Gatwick airport last year. A drone near the runway shut down the airport for 33 hours, days before Christmas.
"Certainly, that level of disruption during a busy holiday season represented a pretty significant issue to the global air transportation system," said Oswald. They've yet to find the person responsible.
It's the most significant drone incident to date, but it's far from the only one.
A dive into a year's worth of FAA records showed hundreds of instances nationwide of pilots reporting drone sightings during take-off or landing. There were 44 instances in North Carolina. Three of them were in the Triad.
In one documented case back in February, a pilot flying near PTI reported seeing a drone at the same altitude. The pilot stated he had to stop the plane from turning, to avoid it.
A week before that, a pilot reported seeing a drone above the aircraft as it was coming in for a landing at PTI.
Oswald pointed out that birds, even balloons can sometimes be confused with drones. "We're relying on very, very rapid perception by pilots oftentimes moving at hundreds of knots."
"Any airport is going to worry about having drones flying around the airport," said Kevin Baker, Executive Director at PTI Airport Authority in Greensboro. He admitted even the possibility of a rogue drone is a huge concern.
"Even the smaller ones, if ingested into an engine or something like that can cause serious damage to an airplane," said Baker.
The United States has been lucky in that regard. The most significant incident was a year and a half ago. A drone, flying illegally over New York City, crashed into the side of a Black Hawk helicopter from Fort Bragg, damaging the chopper's rotor and windshield. It was able to safely land. The drone operator told investigators he lost control of it and didn't realize he was in prohibited airspace.
The Airports Council recently published a report, outlining suggestions to make airports safer. Among them, require Remote Identification Technology in drones that would allow law enforcement to track down the operator.
It also suggests giving more authority to take down drones. Right now, drones are classified as aircraft so only federal agencies can intervene. Advocates want local law enforcement to have the authority to take over their electronic signals, for example.
Meantime, some drone manufacturers are adding safety measures like geo-fencing. It creates a virtual fence around sensitive areas, like airports, and doesn't allow the drone to go into it.
"We're really adapting right now,” said Oswald. “We're finding ourselves in a position of beginning to adapt to this new reality."
"This is certainly something that's a hot topic and people are trying to figure out exactly how we should handle this going forward," added Baker.
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