After dozens of reported near-misses between drones and traditional aircraft this year, a top Democrat is vowing to unveil legislation that would further crack down on the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems.
Records from the Federal Aviation Administration show that drones have been involved in more than 190 safety incidents this year, according to a letter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent to the FAA Wednesday. Drones have repeatedly crashed; flown dangerously near public areas such as airports, stadiums and power plants; and nearly collided with manned airplanes at high altitudes, Feinstein said.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), point to such incidents as reasons why the FAA should expedite its efforts to integrate drones into the national airspace. The agency has been working for months to craft regulations for small drones weighing less than 55 pounds; although the drone industry has been clamoring for clear rules, recent reports suggest that the FAA may be considering a set of requirements that the industry largely opposes.
But Feinstein apparently believes that the safety incidents require an even more muscular response.
"It is clear we have a serious potential safety problem which could cause a serious threat to life," Feinstein wrote. "Yet, very few of these incidents resulted in FAA enforcement actions, according to reports, even though the drones' operations appear to have been plainly illegal."
The senator added that she would introduce legislation to "codify and expand" the country's existing ban on the use of commercial drones.
The FAA has aggressively pursued alleged violators of the ban in some circumstances. A key case involves a photographer named Raphael Pirker, whom the FAA tried to fine $10,000 for shooting a promotional video using a drone. Pirker's behavior, which his defenders have called harmless, has been subject to months of litigation. The National Transportation Safety Board recently handed the FAA a victory in that case.
In light of the many other incidents that Feinstein said went uninvestigated, however, Pirker's case raises questions about the FAA's enforcement policy and whether it is being consistently applied. I've asked the FAA to address the issue and will update if and when I hear back.