Drone industry continues to soar as devices cause headaches for airports

The drone industry continues to thrive. As of Dec. 10, the FAA had more than 1.5 million drones registered nationwide, with about 420,000 of them described as commercial drones and nearly 1.1 million as recreational drones.

By Mia Ping-Chieh Chen
BU News Service

BOSTON – Upon arrival to Logan International Airport, a commercial flight captain recently spotted a blue-and-white drone “directly under the nose of their aircraft.”

The plane was flying at about 3,000 feet and starting to descend, and the drone was about 300 feet beneath it, according to an anonymous report filed by the captain to NASA’s Aviation Safety Report System.

“Nothing we could have done … Ban all drone use within 50 miles of any airport. Arrest and jail anyone caught violating this rule,” the captain said in the report, which also included the captain calling the drone operator “an idiot.”

That report was similar to an incident involving a Delta Airlines flight that also encountered a drone while approaching Logan in November 2018. State Police said in a statement that the drone was spotted over the ocean, and it seemed it was being flown over a boat.

Over the past five years, the Federal Aviation Administration has received nearly 200 drone sighting reports at Massachusetts airports and more than 8,600 reports nationwide. The number of incursions reported in Massachusetts has jumped every year, from 33 incidents in 2015 to 53 in 2018. Through June, 20 incursions had been spotted in 2019. In October, two incidents happened at Logan in less in a week, reported by an outbound Boutique Airlines flight shortly after becoming airborne and a JetBlue Embraer E190 while approaching.

The Massachusetts Port Authority is conducting an advertising campaign, including social media postings and print media advertisements. The agency said in a statement that it had installed “No Drone Zone” signs in several parks and other properties around Logan since 2016.

“Drones must be safely integrated into the airspace and pose a significant concern when operators do not follow the rules,” said MassPort Chief Security Officer Harold Shaw.

Nevertheless, the drone industry continues to thrive. The growth and advancement of drone technologies has brought significant benefits for commercial or business purposes and recreational use.

As of Dec. 10, the FAA had more than 1.5 million drones registered nationwide, with about 420,000 of them described as commercial drones and nearly 1.1 million as recreational drones. Photographers are among the major users, in both categories.

The Boston Drone Film Festival, a two-day event held in November, had more than 40 nominees from drone cinematographers and drone photographers from across the world. The festival not only featured drone film screenings, workshops and panels, but also offered awards in 13 categories.

Attleboro resident Tyler Chauncey, whose 5-minute film “Diesel” was the winner of a People’s Choice Award, received his license as a certificated remote pilot in May 2017. The license allows someone to operate a drone for commercial purposes by following the Part 107 guidelines, which lists the regulations of drone operation in the U.S.

″[The license] separates rules for hobbyist drone pilots and licensed drone pilots,” Chauncy said.

For instance, recreational pilots can only fly at or below 400 feet in uncontrolled airspace and can apply for authorization for operations under 400 feet in controlled airspace around airports.

Certificated pilots are allowed to fly above the designated altitude in controlled airspace with an application in advance, according to the FAA.

“A lot of hobbyists don’t know the rules because [the rules are] really complicated. So they end up getting themselves into a lot of trouble,” Chauncy said. He also mentioned the lack of enforcement made “a lot of people kind of just do whatever they want.”

Besides the entertainment and recreation industry, drones often provide businesses with simpler and more efficient ways to carry out their work.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented a project last year at the International Symposium on Experimental Robotics, involving an autonomous drone fleet system that could help find lost hikers wandering through the large forests of the United States.

Utility company Eversource uses drones to inspect electric lines throughout its entire service territory in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Drones have the ability to get much closer to transmission lines and deliver better, higher-quality pictures than helicopter inspections, according to Reid Lamberty, the company’s media relations manager in Massachusetts.

“When we fly the drones, we never let them go beyond our visual line of sight, and we follow all FAA guidelines as to maximum elevation,” Lamberty said, adding that use of drones is limited to inspections of the company’s equipment by certified operators only.

Eversource also said the use of drones is environmentally friendly in that it reduces the use of fossil fuels and the need for vehicle access to inspect equipment in environmentally sensitive areas.

“Drone technology offers a safe, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way to perform required inspections of electrical lines, structures and equipment,” said Craig Hallstrom, the company’s president of regional electric operations, in a press release.

The company first started using drones for inspections in 2013, and since 2018 all of its routine transmission line inspections are done by drones.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft Systems Mitigation at Airports in October released its report on the issue of incursions by unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems at airports and how best to mitigate this threat.

The task force, jointly commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Airports Council International-North America, recommended that the U.S. Congress and Canadian government provide more funding to the FAA and Transport Canada, respectively. The report also recommended lawmakers extend authority to engage in drone interdiction.

Tom McMahon, senior vice president of advocacy and government relations at the AUVSI, emphasized the importance of enacting remote identification, which he believed would provide a way for law enforcement to identify and track drone owners and operators flying in the airspace.

Remote ID enables law enforcement to better identify careless, reckless and unlawful behaviors – such as flying too close to airports without authorization – and to punish operators who misuse the technology and deter others from doing so, he said.

“More and more people have access to drone technology than ever before, and many do not realize that just because you can easily acquire a drone, doesn’t mean you can fly it anywhere or for any purpose,” McMahon said. “They must be mindful that they’re sharing the airspace with other drones and manned aircraft.”

This article was originally published in the MetroWest Daily News.

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