Dangerous drone operators break the law almost six times every day. That’s why the state of Michigan wants tougher penalties for those who don’t follow the rules.
For pilots like Paul Walter, a drone flying where it shouldn't be is too small to see until it's too late.
"We could have never missed it if we were on a collision course. By the time we saw it, we were upon it,” said Walter.
Walter had a close encounter with a drone last September. And he’s not alone.
Federal law creates a five-mile bubble around airports where unmanned aircraft can only fly with special permission. But records uncovered by the 7 Investigators show pilots reported 2,122 unregistered drones in protected airspace in 2017.
At places like Detroit Metro, and at airports in Waterford, Troy, Lansing, Ann Arbor and Flint… it’s happened at least 36 times since February of 2017.
“Is that a concern,” 7 Investigator Heather Catallo asked MDOT Office of Aeronautics Executive Administrator Mike Trout.
“Yes, that’s definitely a concern,” said Trout. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Trout chaired a state task force that came up with 13 recommendations about drones.
“You’ve got power plants and you’ve got other types of bridges and things in the state that are very key and unique in many ways. And I think that’s kind of the major focus now is to try and protect those,” said Trout.
He says state leaders fully support drone technology and the benefits it will bring to the state. But the task force did recommend some tougher laws, including making a drone operator criminally liable if they break the law.
“[We’re] really trying to educate the public about the fantastic opportunity that these are going to provide to the state,” said Trout. “This technology is something that is going to change our lives over the next just few years. So, we’ve got an opportunity to be prepared for that, and I think the recommendations focused on trying to put a structure in place that gives people a place where they can go to look for information more readily.”
Some of the drone close calls here in Michigan reported to the Federal Aviation Administration have been very close.
For one last September, the “pilot reported [the] drone was 20 feet away from the aircraft.”
Last August, the pilot of a Cessna C152 near Ann Arbor reported to the tower that they were “banking left to avoid hitting a red quadcopter at 500 feet…” near the runway.
“By the time the pilot will see that, if they try to maneuver away from it… it actually puts the plane in jeopardy,” said University at Buffalo CRASH Lab (State University of New York) aerospace engineer Professor Javid Bayandor. He says anyone using a drone must be aware of the rules.
“Do not fly around the airport or anywhere else that a piloted system may be in operation,” said Bayandor.
“Michigan is made up of a system of airports: over 235 public use airports where there’s significant amount of activity – everything from Metro Airport to the very smallest grass strips. There are another 200 privately held airports in the state as well,” said Trout. “Anybody who’s flying has some concern there could be some interference. I think that’s part of what we want to study further, is how do those interactions happen safely? Is there a part of the airspace that could be designated for these, so they can fly together and aircraft can fly safely in other parts of the airspace as well?”
All of the bills related to UAS activity in Michigan have been referred to the Transportation Committee in both the House and the Senate.
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
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