Dangerous drones invade protected airspace at metro Detroit airports

FAA rarely catches operators who break law

Detroit, MI - There are a lot of new, amateur pilots out there.  But instead of planes, these pilots are flying drones.  The 7 Investigators discovered some drone pilots are taking big risks with your safety.   They're flying into the protected airspace around major airports, and experts say the FAA needs to do much more to keep you safe.

Drones are known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, and the Federal Aviation Administration says they’re getting more than 100 reports every month about UAS sightings.

Paul Walter learned to fly an airplane before he was licensed to drive a car.  That makes him a cool customer in the air; even on a day last September when a strange object zipped past his Piper PA-39.

"My wife says, ‘look at that!’ And, boom - we saw a large drone.  It was off our wing about 50 feet,” said Walter.

Walter had a dangerously close encounter with a large drone that was flying much higher than he thought possible.  The drone was also in the protected airspace around a major airport.  Walter's first instinct was to warn other pilots.  Because a drone around an airport could have deadly consequences.

"If it went through the windshield, that could be serious to say the least. It could kill the pilot," said Walter.

That's why federal law creates a five-mile bubble around airports where drones can only fly with permission. 

The 7 investigators discovered dangerous drone operators break that law almost six times a day.

Records show just last year pilots reported more than 2,100 unregistered drones in protected airspace.  Here in Michigan, it’s happened at least 36 times since February of 2017.  Sixteen of those "close calls" were in the bubble around Detroit Metro Airport.

Professor Javid Bayandor is an aerospace engineer.  He studies drone strikes at the CRASH Lab located in the University at Buffalo, State University New York.  His simulations show what a drone would do to a jet engine:  it could destroy the engine in less than a second.

“By the time you detect a drone on a radar or see it on an aircraft, it would be too late,” said Bayandor.

So what does the FAA do to fight this risk?  In most cases reviewed by the 7 Investigators, the FAA simply calls local police... but not much happens.  From the 2,122 drone reports called in last year, only 19 resulted with the pilot getting tracked down and fined.

In a statement, the FAA said that's as far as they can go.

"The FAA does not impose criminal penalties. That's a question for law enforcement," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

But the Government Accountability Office determined the FAA needs to do more.  They just released a study on drones with a clear warning in the title:  "FAA should improve its management of safety risks."  And they cited the research of Professor Bayandor as a big reason why.

“It’s time for us to look into proper regulations,” said Bayandor.  “We’re not trying to limit anyone, but trying to look into proper regulations that would make sure that all of us are safe.”

The FAA declined to sit down for an interview with us but did release this statement:

“Drones entering the National Airspace System – whether recreational or authorized commercial use – are expected to operate safely and avoid manned aircraft at all times.  Many drone operators are new to the aviation community and do not understand that they are flying in shared airspace.  The FAA has developed a number of tools to educate these individuals about how to fly safely and responsibly.  While education is key, the agency also recognizes that it has limits, and we take reports of unsafe or unauthorized operations very seriously.  Operators who fly recklessly or endanger other aircraft risk stiff fines and criminal penalties, including possible jail time.”

Elizabeth Isham Cory

FAA External Communications/Public Affairs

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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