Hundreds of thousands of small drones are infesting American skies, raising fears of a jetliner collision catastrophe, terrorist attack, assassination and other crimes from on high.
Amid a chorus of calls to contain the proliferation of small, powerful, wide-ranging drones – some of them duck-sized multi-rotor copters capable of pre-programmed flights at airliner altitudes – there's widespread agreement that the rules lag years behind the reality.
A quadcopter hovered within easy-shot distance of President Barack Obama as he golfed on a West Palm Beach course in the spring. Three weeks ago, a video of a quadcopter fitted with a semi-automatic handgun by a Connecticut teenager went viral on YouTube after it was filmed firing off four shots. In January, an errant drone crashed on the White House lawn in the middle of the night, setting off a major security lockdown.
More than 600 close encounters between passenger jets and drones big enough to damage or destroy an airliner in a high-speed collision have been reported so far this year.
Firefighters battling to save California homes were forced to abort low-level water-bombing runs when several camera-toting quadcopters were seen lurking aloft in the smoke last month.
Rogue drones piloted by reckless owners have caused mischief ranging from buzzing dogs in Central Park to Peeping Tom flights.
Earlier this month, a delivery of heroin, marijuana and tobacco set off a massive fistfight among inmates in an Ohio prison yard when the contraband was dropped from a small drone flying overhead. Unlike Amazon, which asked for one-time permission to test drone delivery as a promotional stunt, the drug drop, like most small drone flights, was unauthorized and unregulated.
A patchwork of local, state and federal rules supposedly governs small drones, or "unmanned aerial vehicles," as they are more accurately known. But mainly it is the absence of rules that is permitting chaos and the real potential for catastrophe in the skies.
For instance, when Connecticut police tracked down the ingenious teen who added a handgun to his drone, they discovered there was no law preventing a registered gun owner from mounting a semi-automatic on a quadcopter and firing it.
Personal non-commercial UAVs are entirely unregulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, although closed airspace is still off limits to them.
Congress has been slow to respond, despite the stunning increase in ownership of small UAVs. More than one million are already in use and hundreds of thousands are expected to be sold this year in the United States. Small UAVs can cost only a few hundred dollars. More sophisticated models capable of carrying surveillance cameras or other payloads, following pre-programmed courses at speeds over 30 kilometres an hour, or hovering and staying aloft for several hours, cost only a few thousand dollars and are widely available online.
"If we don't act now, it's only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands," Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said after a spate of near-collisions over San Francisco and Los Angeles airports. "Consumer drones are a new technology. They can fly thousands of feet in the air and jeopardize air travel, but the FAA can only regulate them if they are used for commercial purposes. That loophole must be closed," she said in June when she introduced draft legislation.
Some aviation analysts fear it will take a disaster before there's a crackdown.
"It is not a matter of if it will happen. It is a matter of when it will happen," warns Chesley Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot who successfully ditched his crippled Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in 2009 after both engines were wrecked after ingesting a flock of ducks. "Birds that weigh only six or eight pounds … can bring down an airliner," he told WABC radio this week after more drones were seen close by landing jets at New York airports.
When the FAA refused to release hundreds of "near-collision" reports, a government official who disagreed with the agency's stonewalling leaked a trove of reports to the Washington Post, the newspaper said.
Currently UAVs fall into three broad categories. The best known are large pilotless aircraft such as the military's Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, which can fly thousands of kilometres, stay aloft for up to 48 hours and may be armed with Hellfire missiles. They are flown exclusively by the military or government agencies such as Homeland Security's unarmed Predators patrolling the U.S.-Canadian and U.S.-Mexican borders. Integrating these large UAVs into regulated airspace poses challenges but, on a limited basis, has now been accomplished for more than a decade.
Small and medium-sized UAVs commercial and government UAVs, especially those not needing runways because they can be hand-launched, pose a whole different set of challenges. Farmers want to use them for pesticide spraying; railroads and pipeline companies want them to fly inspection and safety patrols. But the FAA has so far issued only limited permits as it struggles to keep both UAVs and existing aviation safe and apart.
But the million-plus private, non-commercial UAVs, some smaller than a dinner plate and others weighing more than five kilograms, pose a greater range of risks.
What few national rules exist – saying, for instance, that drones must stay eight kilometres away from airports and fly below 150 metres – are often ignored. Military and civilian pilots have reported seeing small UAVs at altitudes of more than 3,000 metres.
"Regulations governing their usage are significantly lagging the pace of innovation," said the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, in a report earlier this week that called for a comprehensive approach because "we are living in the proverbial Wild West." Only a few states, including Nevada and Wisconsin, the report said, "have passed legislation to prevent the weaponization of drones."
Jim Hall, a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, the world's foremost aviation accident investigation agency, wants UAVs grounded "until drones are strictly regulated – including operating rules, registration requirements and penalties for interfering with other aircraft that have teeth." In a column published this week in USA Today, Mr. Hall wrote: "We've played Russian roulette with drones long enough."