The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did a pair of drones interfere with flights at Newark Airport, or was it something else?

Industry experts say pilots probably saw something in the air but doubt it was a drone.

Placeholder while article actions load

One day after reports of drone activity near Newark Liberty International Airport temporarily halted flights, there are questions about whether the unmanned object spotted in the New Jersey sky was indeed a drone.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration said at about 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday they received two reports of possible drones operating near Newark Airport. One came from a Southwest Airlines pilot and the other from a United Airlines pilot who spotted what they believed was a drone in the air as they prepared to land at Newark. However, an FAA spokesman said Wednesday that the agency has been unable to independently confirm the sightings.

“We continue to work with local law enforcement to find additional evidence,” the spokesman said.

The agency had initially said that the drones were spotted near Teterboro Airport, a smaller airport located about 17 miles north of Newark. On Wednesday, they said the drones were operating about nine miles from Newark Airport in airspace used by incoming flights.

Industry experts, however, are pushing back against the reports. The objects could have been balloons, plastic bags or space junk, they said. Adam Lisberg, spokesman for DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, said the pilots probably spotted something in the air but that it’s unlikely it was a drone.

One reason, Lisberg said: The drones were reportedly flying at 3,500 feet. Under FAA rules, drones are not permitted to fly higher than 400 feet. And while it’s possible for them to fly higher with FAA permission, Lisberg said it’s “highly unlikely.”

He said previous reports of drones flying near Gatwick and Heathrow airports in London — have made people more “predisposed” to assuming that when they see something in the air, it’s a drone.

Drones are flying themselves, but how far should Washington let them go?

“There’s certainly cases of knuckleheads flying drones where they shouldn’t be, but we have strong reservations on [the Newark] report,” he said. “There has been case after case after case of someone who saw a drone in the air that turned out to be a bat or a balloon or a plastic bag.”

Federal officials are wrestling with how to regulate drones as their numbers continue to grow. Government officials estimate that more than 1 million are already in use.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes to Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI. They should have been attributed to DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg,