Did military drone spook commercial pilot?
The FBI and NYPD are investigating whether an aerial vehicle that flew into a pilot's airspace was a drone or just a model aircraft.
Thu, Mar 07, 2013 at 12:06 PM
Given the privacy, security and ethical quandaries involved in the use of drones, the unmanned aerial vehicles have been in the news a lot lately. People have even started seeing drones where they may not exist.
One pilot en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Rome spotted a strange object entering his airspace and reported it as a drone to air traffic control. While the object has yet to be identified, though, it’s likely that the pilot saw an unusual model aircraft — potentially a civilian drone — flying higher than regulations permit.
While flying over the south shore of Long Island, the Alitalia pilot saw a small black object with four propellers fly within 200 feet of his plane. “We saw a drone, a drone aircraft!” he radioed, before continuing his approach and completing his landing without further issue.
While both the FBI and the NYPD are looking into the matter, neither organization believes a military drone sighting is particularly likely. Instead, they identify a large model aircraft as the probable culprit —something along the lines of the Parrot AR Drone 2.0.
Here’s where the issue gets tricky: Model aircraft operation is not subjected to hard-and-fast laws, but rather a series of standards enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA recommends that enthusiasts keep models below altitudes of 400 feet and more than three miles away from airports, but no law prohibits this behavior. This applies to semiautonomous civilian drones as well as traditional RC model aircraft.
The precise difference between a model aircraft and a drone can be hard to pin down. Chris Anderson, who runs the amateur DIY Drones site, writes in his site’s mission statement that a drone “is capable of both remotely controlled flight (like a regular RC aircraft) and fully-autonomous flight, controlled by sensors, GPS, and onboard computers performing the functions of an autopilot.”
Amateurs can build drones or purchase them ready-made, and invest considerable time and money in outfitting them with expensive cameras and elaborate command centers. Doing so is not only perfectly legal, but draws an enormous hobbyist crowd of model airplane enthusiasts, photographers
, and videographers. [See also: 7 Next Generation UAVs]
This, of course, means that the pilot’s drone sighting is entirely within the realm of possibility. The line between civilian drone and model aircraft is somewhat fuzzy, and unless the authorities discover who owns the vehicle, knowing for sure is just about impossible. Responsibility for the event will be especially hard to pin down, especially if it turns out to be a civilian drone operating autonomously.
“The FBI is asking anyone with information about the unmanned aircraft or the operator to contact us,” says John Giacalone, the special agent in charge of the investigation. Tracking down a 3-foot-long unidentified aircraft hours after the fact will be difficult without any additional information.
Whatever the pilot saw, he probably won’t be the last one to see something like it. Amateur drone and RC aircraft enthusiasts should take care to comply with the FAA’s guidelines, especially in high air-traffic areas. Otherwise, within the next few years, the skies could become a very confusing place.
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