Commercial Drones' Rise Seen As Growing Danger To Traditional Aircraft

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Zip Aviation helicopter pilot James Hershman guides a group of European tourists on an aerial tour of New York City on April 24, 2014.

Jeremy Hansen’s video camera-equipped drones really get around. They’ve flown high above a Philadelphia suburb to shoot footage for a music video, recorded a bird’s-eye view of New York City’s Herald Square and even crash-dove into the ocean off the coast of Florida.

But Hansen, co-founder of Refractive Films, isn’t a licensed pilot. He doesn’t have extensive formal training. And he certainly doesn’t announce his flight plans to air traffic controllers or keep in radio contact with other aircraft.

He’s just one of the thousands of Americans who have purchased or built drones for their own private or commercial use in recent years. And he’s been able to turn a little ingenuity, combined with the absence of effective, easily enforceable regulations on the use of these increasingly popular unmanned aircraft, into a lucrative service offered by his year-old, New York-based multimedia production company.

“About two to three years ago I had the idea of putting a camera on an RC [remote control] helicopter to capture aerial footage. After doing research I found that this had already been done, it was just an expensive thing to get into,” he explained, adding that it gives Refractive Films an edge when competing with other firms for film and video gigs. “I use it to capture angles that have never been seen before.”

Refractive Films Drone Jeremy Hansen, co-founder of Refractive Films, flies his quadcopter drone.

For successful commercial drone operators like Hansen -- who currently flies the relatively small DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter but plans to build a three-foot-wide octocopter equipped with tens of thousands of dollars of video equipment and a parachute -- their emergence in recent years has been a godsend, allowing them to access the skies in a way that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

But the rise of the drone’s popularity and the falling costs of the cheapest models on the market have aviation experts, regulators and pilots concerned about the potential dangers they pose to airplanes and helicopters.

Patrick Smith, a renowned aviation expert, author, active airline pilot and host of prominent air travel and aviation website askthepilot.com, said in a phone interview Thursday that drones’ threat to traditional aircraft is a “burgeoning problem,” pointing out that even a handheld device could potentially bring down a jet.

“You can’t have people remote-controlling these vehicles wherever and whenever they see fit. It's simply too dangerous,” he said, adding later, “One way or another there are going to have to be rules and regulations put in place.”

Smith cited a number of potential ways to address the growing problem, including the institution of a mandatory licensing program for drone operators like the ones already in place in some European countries. But he, like the Federal Aviation Administration, realizes that there are major obstacles preventing such a regime from being put in place, never mind ensuring that it would be enforceable.

“I think altitude restrictions would be one thing to look at. Another would be certain air traffic corridors would be entirely off-limits for remote-control flying,” he said. “How you would enforce that though, especially as these things proliferate, is anyone’s guess at that point.”

The FAA has tried its hand at establishing a regulatory framework for commercial drone use, and it has gone so far as to levy a $10,000 fine against an operator by the name of Raphael Pirker who used a drone to film aerial views of the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville. Pirker appealed the case to the National Transportation Safety Board, where the FAA cited a policy statement it issued requiring all drone operators to have experimental aircraft permits in arguing that it had the authority to issue the fine.

But in March, NTSB Judge Patrick Geraghty overturned the fine, stating that “there was no enforceable FAA rule” against using drones in the manner Pirker did, deeming the policy statement an insufficient basis for such punitive measures.

The Pirker case has been seen as something of a bellwether among commercial and personal drone operators, who interpret it as setting a precedent that the FAA -- which says it will introduce new regulations on drones in 2015 -- does not currently have the teeth to regulate the industry. The NTSB referred requests for comment to the FAA, which declined to provide comment for this story.

Refractive Films Drone A quadcopter drone operated by Jeremy Hansen, co-founder of Refractive Films, flies under the Hell Gate Bridge in Queens, N.Y.

Hansen, who performs an extensive series of pre-flight checks before he launches his drones and avoids flying near airports, air traffic and crowds, has taken that view to heart, saying he believes that when he films with his drones he is operating fully within the law, though he does support certain ways the FAA could regulate drone use.

“The thing is right now the FAA lost a case recently, and the industry is totally unregulated,” he explained. “And while I highly disagree with what the FAA was trying to do -- that is, ban the commercial use of it -- I believe there should be a license required to operate these.”

For some pilots who fly traditional aircraft in areas where drones are likely to become increasingly common, the simple fact that there may be no existing means of effectively regulating commercial drone use does little to allay their concerns about them.

There have already been numerous incidents of drones crashing into populated areas and near-misses between drones and traditional aircraft, and many pilots worry that deaths from a plane or helicopter colliding with unmanned aircraft are inevitable if the unrestricted spread of drones is allowed to continue unabated.

James Hershman is an Air Force veteran who works as a helicopter captain for Zip Aviation in New York City, piloting tour groups on aerial tours of Manhattan. Some of the areas where he flies on a daily basis are governed by what are known as “visual flight rules,” meaning that pilots flying below a certain altitude in those spaces do not maintain constant contact with air traffic controllers and instead rely mainly on pilot-to-pilot communication, or “self-announcing,” and their own eyes to ensure that they don’t crash into other planes and helicopters.

Hershman says that though he has yet to see a drone flying above the Hudson River or anywhere else he goes on his tours, the fact that he often flies at or around 1,500 feet -- an elevation that even some small drones can easily reach -- makes the prospect of drones crowding the airways a frightening prospect.

“Having drones like that fly that low to the city actually is kind of hazardous, having something flying that fast without an actual pilot, at least that’s just my opinion,” he said Thursday. “You can’t have unmanned aircraft flying around that can’t self-announce. It’s obviously a danger, so having something like that should always be controlled either by an air traffic controller, or they should have some idea of how to correlate with other people that are flying.”

Helicopter NYC A view of Manhattan from the helicopter of Zip Aviation pilot James Hershman.

Still, Smith and Hershman both note that remote-control airplane hobbyists have been flying model planes for decades without causing major problems for pilots, so they have hope that there is a way to ensure that the same goes for drones in the future.

Smith said these issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later in order to prevent unnecessary calamities.

“It might be that we haven’t seen a lot of action on this because there hasn’t been any sort of serious accident yet,” he said. “Ideally you want some sort of action or controls before something happens.”

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