On a Saturday night in early December, Chinese exchange student Owen Ouyang went out to the front yard of his home in Martinez, Calif., and launched a sleek new drone he had recently bought for about $1,000.
The 2.8-pound drone, advertised as “easy to fly,” proved anything but. Soon after takeoff, the drone veered dangerously toward a power line. It then climbed more than 700 feet — right into the path of a California Highway Patrol helicopter. A head-on collision was averted only after the chopper’s crew made a sharp right-hand turn at the last moment.
The harrowing episode illustrates a growing safety concern as more and more drones, particularly ones used for recreation, take flight into the national airspace. Their popularity is booming in the United States, with sales of drones that weigh more than a half pound expected to reach 1 million this year. At the same time, critics fear that the chances of a catastrophic collision with a manned aircraft — possibly even a commercial jetliner — are soaring.
“If we don’t act now, it’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in a news release last June.
Some critics focus the blame on the companies that market drones for recreational use, which can sell from under $100 to $3,000 or more. These drones, like Ouyang’s device, can zoom to impressive altitudes but, the critics say, usually lack the navigation and communications systems and design quality needed to ensure safe flying.
Paul Hudson, president of the airline passenger advocacy group FlyersRights. org, said drone industry lobbyists had succeeded in coaxing the Federal Aviation Administration to grant “a de facto waiver of basic aircraft regulations to drone makers and sellers.”
Industry officials say that fears are overblown and that they already are adding new safety features.
“The record we have to date should speak for itself,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI, the Chinese drone company that dominates the recreational market. “The recreational drone world has tens of millions of operational hours, I would estimate, and not a single fatality.”
Still, Feinstein, along with Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, is pushing legislation to give the FAA broad authority to regulate hobbyists who fly drones. The measure also would direct the aviation agency to require manufacturers of drones built for recreation or business to add safety features such as limits on how high, or where, their devices can fly.
The bill’s supporters include Chesley Sullenberger, the retired airline pilot famed for successfully executing an emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009 when his aircraft was disabled after striking a flock of geese. In an October 2015 news release from Feinstein’s office, Sullenberger said: “The huge upsurge in the numbers of drones and of reckless actions by drone users has greatly increased the risk to everyone who flies.”
Feinstein has vowed to press her case during the debate over the reauthorization of FAA programs that Congress is scheduled to take up in March. The industry appears ready to put up a fight, although much of its focus is on pending regulations for operators of commercial drones.
The Small UAV Coalition — which includes manufacturers such as DJI, along with Amazon, Google X and Intel — spent $890,000 last year lobbying Congress and federal agencies. That was four times the coalition’s spending on lobbying in 2014, when it was founded, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicles, another name for drones.
Already, worrisome incidents abound. A report released in December by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone identified 327 “close encounters” between drones and manned aircraft over a 21-month period that ended last September. That included 51 cases in which the drones and conventional aircraft came within 50 feet of each other, and 28 incidents in which a pilot maneuvered to avoid a collision.
Drones flying above a dozen wildfires last summer in California forced authorities to pull back firefighting planes in some cases to avoid midair collisions. Drones also have flown close to some of the nation’s busiest airports and have approached commercial planes carrying hundreds of passengers.
Concern also has emerged that easily available high-flying drones could become a difficult-to-defeat weapon for terrorists. When asked about that threat during a House Aviation subcommittee hearing in October, Mykel Kochenderfer, a Stanford University aeronautics expert, replied: “I would have to say there’s relatively little we can do about that now.”
Regulation has been slow to come, however. Aside from a federal registration requirement announced in December, recreational drone users have operated largely under voluntary FAA guidelines dating to 1981 for model aircraft. The guidelines, among other things, say users should limit flying to 400 feet above ground. But there are no requirements for operators to be trained or for their drones to have FAA certification. The FAA can fine those who fly recklessly, but the agency has rarely used that authority.
Among the harshest critics is W. Hulsey Smith, chief executive of Aero Kinetics, a Fort Worth, Texas, company that sells sophisticated commercial drones that cost $10,000 or more to automate tasks such as inspecting cellphone towers or refineries. He calls most recreational drones “toys” and says their manufacturers should be using higher-quality designs and installing better navigation and communications systems.
“There is no reason for them to wait to adopt these basic principles of safety other than for greedy profit,” Smith said. These companies, he added, are “putting the public at risk, both in the air and on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the FAA issued a proposal last February that would ease standards for small drones used for commercial purposes such as aerial photography, power line surveillance and crop monitoring. The agency said it expects to issue the final rule by late this spring.
The amount of damage a drone can inflict on a commercial or another manned aircraft remains speculative because there is little or no data on the issue. The FAA only recently began research on the collision hazards posed by drones. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency hoped to get some findings by September.
In the meantime, experts offer varying assessments. Jim Williams, who until last June was the FAA’s top drone official and who now advises drone companies for the law and lobbying firm Dentons, said it was “theoretically possible,” but unlikely, that a drone could bring down a commercial aircraft. He said the dangers got “a little more serious” for small private planes and helicopters because, among other reasons, they were more fragile than jetliners.
Other experts such as Scott Strimple, a United Airlines pilot for 25 years and an experienced drone operator, expressed deeper concerns. In a collision with a Cessna or another small plane, “a drone could easily come through the window and kill the pilot. It’s just Plexiglas,” Strimple said. “That’s like a frozen chicken coming through at 50 knots.” A drone, Strimple said, also could cause an engine shutdown or a cracked windshield on a larger aircraft.
Industry groups argue that the key to improved safety lies in education. They have promoted, with the FAA, an informational program called “Know Before You Fly.”
Yet even fairly sophisticated aviation enthusiasts can get into trouble. Ouyang, 23, is no stranger to flying. He is close to getting his private pilot’s license.
He is apologetic about the California Highway Patrol helicopter incident but has registered his drone with the FAA and is flying again, and taking new precautions, while his case remains under investigation.
One of the most common worries among critics, though, is how drone technology has enabled novices with no background in aviation to fly devices that could create havoc in the air.
“They have no situational awareness or appreciation for safety,” said Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. “They think it is a game. They do not realize it is for real.”
This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization that specializes in public health, safety and environmental issues.