Yesterday morning, an Alitalia pilot reported seeing a remote-controlled aircraft near New York's JFK airport, where he was landing. The drone was flying about 4 to 5 miles west of the airport at an altitude of about 1,750 feet, and it came within just 200 feet of the Alitalia plane, the pilot said. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, and the FBI announced that it is looking for information leading to the drone operator. But was it legal?
Domestic drones are not regulated.
Law is slow to catch up to new technology, so drones are not currently regulated in U.S. air space. The FAA is in the process of picking drone-testing sites, which will be used to help develop domestic drone rules. Until then, unmanned aircraft are governed by model airplane rules, and model airplane rules are pretty lax.
Older laws for model aircraft forbade flying anything above 400 feet. This is still a recognized guideline by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the lobbyist group that represents model aircraft hobbyists, but the height ceiling hasn't been on the books since at least 2012. Instead, unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft have to be visible to the naked eye, which might mean just a couple hundred feet in cloudy weather or much further than the recommended 400 feet in good weather. (Visual range notwithstanding, 1,750 feet of altitude is well beyond the reach of most commercially available model aircraft.)
While the 2012 act re-authorizing the FAA removed the height ceiling for model aircraft, it was very clear about boundaries around an airport. Flying a drone within 5 miles of an airport requires notifying that airport; otherwise, you risk prosecution. Initial reports place the drone at 4 to 5 miles away from the airport, which means it isn't clear whether this drone broke that rule or not. If the drone flew closer than that, and did so without notifying air traffic control, it would've been illegal.
The construction of the drone, however, is very likely to have been totally legal. Described as a 3-foot-wide black quadrotor it probably falls under existing construction guidelines. Model aircraft regulations let you fly anything under 55 pounds, and following AMA guidelines, everything, from absolute altitude to size to any sensors a drone might have on board, is legal.
Finally, there's H. R. 658, SEC. 336, (a)4. This part of the 2012 FAA reauthorization states explicitly flying a model aircraft is legal only if "the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft." Flying within 200 feet of an airliner definitely, absolutely, in no uncertain terms violates that law, so let's just say this is very illegal.
Should the incident worry us?
Probably. Think about your last driving commute, and how many near-accidents happened. Now imagine that in three dimensions, with some vehicles as small as a frisbee and others as large as a 747 zooming around side by side. In 2009, US Airways flight 1549 made a crash landing in the Hudson river after geese knocked out both engines. It's incredibly unlikely that model airplanes will regularly pose as great a threat as geese, but the introduction of a whole new category of aircraft to the skies will make things a lot more crowded. With luck, research, and due diligence the FAA testing process and authorization for drone use will clear this out. Until then, we're stuck with the increasingly outdated model airplane laws we have.
A clarification on the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012" cited earlier. Rather than setting out specific legal restrictions on model aircraft, the law as written spells out five criteria that if met put the model aircraft beyond FAA regulation. These criteria are hobbyist purpose, under 55lbs, kept in line of sight, doesn't interfere with manned aircraft, and if flown within 5 miles of an airport the air traffic controller is notified beforehand. The FAA is free to regulate drones and model airplanes that don't meet those five criteria. It just doesn't.
A drone besides a remote camera is also a remote weapon. Interesting article!
One of these drones sucked into a jet engine would be catastrophic. And result probably in a crash and massive loss of lives. So hell yes it should be illegal within 5 miles of any airport.
"This part of the 2012 FAA reauthorization states explicitly flying a model aircraft is legal only if "the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft." Flying within 200 feet of an airliner definitely, absolutely, in no uncertain terms violates that law, so let's just say this is very illegal."
How is that very illegal? It was not in the airliner's way and it didn't interfere with it. It was just close. Also it couldn't have been close very long because I doubt it was going, at most, third as fast as the jet...
No harm no foul.
I suppose a civilian drone with an attach laser pointer, pointing into the cockpit of a plane would be bad too.
@gizmowiz FAA guidelines are VERY stringent about object ingestion and the resulting after effects. If a small drone were ingested, it would cause the failure of the engine. Nothing more. Jets can fly on one engine. It would mean that the flight would be promoted to emergency status, but may not necessarily result in a crash. Don't let your paranoia dictate policy. Yes drones shouldn't fly near airports, but drones are not inherently evil. Drones can save lives as well as end them. If you want to talk about vehicles acting as weapons, I give you the average car.
Laser pointers are almost completely harmless, and aiming one well enough to temporarily blind one of the pilots (and there are two) is almost completely impossible. Stop inciting peoples fears. If you want to scare people, I would mention that a laser aimed from the ground is a least as dangerous as one in the air and probably much more powerful.
If anything, this incident should highlight the immediate need for a new air traffic control system. The one we have is ancient, overtaxed, and incapable of meeting future needs as few as 10 years from now.
If the drone was only 200 feet away from the plane, that is a bit worrisome. But I'd wait to hear results from the full investigation before judging it completely. If the quadcopter operator was intentionally trying to get close to the plane, that is reckless and should be punished IMO, even if it didn't violate the height or distance parameters outlined in law. This is definitely an area in federal, state, and local code that will need to be modified and adapted as quadcopters become more prevalent, which is not a bad thing - just means that thoughtful discussion should occur with all the stakeholders.
Planes should be equipped with a broadcast signal that automatically makes drones change course to remain a safe distance and drones should be regulated to utilize this signal.
"Make it so"
Could PopSci please talk to an aviation lawyer or at least someone from the Academy of Model Aeronautics before writing a story like this? You got ever single aspect of the law wrong here. I happen to be both an attorney and a first-person view (FPV) model aircraft enthusiast who has studied this extensively. The truth is that at present there are absolutely no legally binding rules or regulations governing hobbyist model aircraft.
The FAA's "rules" which include the mythical 400' altitude limit are in fact nothing more than advisory guidelines. And the model aircraft provision in the law passed by Congress last year do nothing more than define the parameters to qualify for a relatively narrow exemption for a particular subset of model aircraft from any future FAA regulations. Currently however, there are no regulations to be exempt from, because the FAA has never issued any. They are in the process of drafting regulations which may affect certain types of model aircraft, but those have yet to even be published, let alone take legal effect.
Now I certainly don't condone flying any kind of model aircraft at 1500' in the middle of an approach route to a major airport, and would never do it myself. And doing so in that particular place could indeed still be considered illegal under a general provision in the Federal Aviation Regulations prohibiting "careless or reckless operation of an aircraft." But there is no law currently on the books either imposing any kind of altitude requirement on recreational model aircraft or requiring you to keep the model in visual line of sight. While the FAA officially "expects" model aircraft to remain within visual line of sight and recommends that you stay below 400', there is no actual legally enforceable requirement to do so.
Personally, I own a 5 foot-long, video piloted flying wing that is capable of flying up to several thousand feet above the ground and which I regularly fly up to 3-4 miles away from myself, though I usually do stay below 400-500 feet to make sure to stay away from aircraft, which except for around airports, almost always fly much higher. There is nothing illegal about what I do, and I always make sure to take every safety precaution possible, keeping aware of any aircraft in the area and making sure to avoid flying anywhere near them.
As for this story, I find it rather doubtful a pilot could actually see a quadcopter in the middle of the sky(it's hard enough to see them from the ground only a few hundred feet away, which is why most quadcopters are flown through video cameras), and the last time an airplane pilot reported seeing a "drone" in the air it turned out to be a wayward Chinese lantern. But if there really was a quadcopter near the airliner, I just want people to know that such foolishness is extremely rare among drone hobbyists, who are generally very good at flying safely and using common sense. People who do things like this give the rest of us a bad name and endanger a harmless and fun hobby that an ever-growing number of people enjoy.
Blatantly false news stories like this which misrepresent the law and our legal status are not helping, as they only cause hobbyists like myself to come under criticism for supposedly violating non-existent laws. I wish PopSci would have done more research before pretending they know what is and is not legal for hobbyist "drones."
Hey, I'm the author of this piece and interested in talking with you about this. You can find my email under the masthead. Please shoot me a line.
The FAA considers a pass inside of 500 ft to be a collision. No, the FAA isn't saying that a collision necessarily took place, but that it just plain could have. It is required that the FAA regulate the incident from the standpoint of how likely an incident of type is to occur again. In an area like this where everything having to do with these pilotless aircraft is coming under scrutiny, they've got their work cut out for them. We may end up with WiFi ATC and hobbyists filing flight plans.
@ Serithian, Laws don't mean shit. If I published what I know about the shit the FAA don't see, it would crush the industry. I build this shit. From block to orbit. Regulations are ignored and shit is shoveled under rugs constantly. I won't set foot on a flight without at least 3 drinks. Even when I do the driving. Talk to a lawyer about that.