- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lawmakers criticized federal aviation officials in a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday for missing a deadline to issue new safety regulations to deal with the soaring popularity of private drones and the potential hazard they pose for air traffic, warning that a crash between a drone and a commercial airplane could just be a matter of time.

The Federal Aviation Administration faced heat at the House transportation subcommittee for not issuing new rules for unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, by last month, a deadline set in a 2012 reform law. While the FAA published a rule for small drone certification and operation in February, the agency has yet to come up with an integration plan and now says that a final version of the rule will not be completed until next year.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at the delay, calling for clear laws and penalties, and for drones to be registered and installed with tracking devices, so that misusers who break the law can be tracked and punished. Even a partial law, critics said, would be better than the virtual lack of oversight that now exists.

“Something is always better than nothing in the face of a known danger,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, Massachusetts Democrat, who revealed he owns two small drones himself. “Do something before someone loses their life on this.”

“It is not if an accident will happen, it is when,” added Rep. Rick Larsen, Washington state Democrat.

Drones are being produced and sold at unprecedented numbers — UAS sales have surged in the last year and 700,000 are expected to sell, a 63 percent increase from last year.

As sales go up, so do reports of sightings by pilots. The number of reports has reached 100 a month, a fivefold increase from 2014, said Michael Whitaker, FAA deputy administrator.

In one incident, two planes trying to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City in August reported seeing an unidentified drone, with one, an incoming jet from Orlando, saying the device flew “about 100 feet below us, just off our right wing.”

As many as 1 million UAS could be sold this holiday season, which could greatly increase the already growing number of sighting reports on drones near airports, close to airplanes, and above busy city skies and natural disaster sites.

But questions remain over how to set up and police no-fly zones, how to regulate drones that can fit in the palm of one’s hand and other issues. In addition, drones are not identified with chips or other identification methods, making it almost impossible for police to track UAS users, experts said.

The FAA has developed two programs, the “No Drone Zone” and “Know Before You Fly,” aimed at informing and educating UAS users, especially inexperienced pilots using them for pleasure and recreation, and has collaborated with law enforcement to handle situations when drones were used inappropriately or jeopardized safety.

“We want people to enjoy this new technology, but we want them to do it safely,” said Mr. Whitaker.

State governments are also struggling to set rules for drone use that will balance their growing versatility with safety and privacy concerns.

In California, paparazzi will no longer be allowed to operate drones over private property in California to photograph celebrities under a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this week.

California State Assemblyman Ian Calderon said lawmakers heard from residents that paparazzi were using the drones to take pictures and video above their residences despite the legislation on the books. Singer Miley Cyrus was among those who caught sight of a drone over her home last year. She took video of the unmanned aircraft and posted it online.

The new law establishes a property right in the airspace that spans 350 feet directly above private property. It will ban drones from crossing over property lines and fences to hover above private homes or properties for the purpose of capturing images, according to Mr. Calderon.

A leading pilots’ group told the House hearing that more government oversight was urgently needed.

“The FAA is making progress, but we need to do more,” said Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Andrew Blake contributed to this report.

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