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Drones above endangering planes in NH

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 13. 2014 5:15PM



Three times this year pilots reported unwanted encounters in the skies over New Hampshire, close calls with aircraft roughly the size of a large bird, occupying the same airspace as airliners carrying passengers and cargo, according to data released by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In each case, the unwanted intruder wasn't a bird. It wasn't a plane. It was a UAS, or unmanned aircraft system, otherwise known as a drone.

According to the FAA, at 1:28 p.m. on Sept. 27, a pilot reported seeing a green drone hovering 1,500 feet above runway 35 at Manchester Boston Regional Airport, as his plane ascended. Air traffic controllers diverted other planes away from the runway and Manchester and New Hampshire State Police were notified, according to the report.

Whatever make or model of drone it was, it didn't belong there and could have caused great damage, or worse, if it had collided with a jet engine or a plane's windshield, according to David DeVries, president of the New Hampshire Pilots Association, a group of about 325 recreational aviators in the Granite State.

"I can't tell you how dumb something like that is," said DeVries. "The chances of striking a drone and causing damage to a plane are slim, but at the same time all it takes is one before people are hurt. We support most anything that flies, drones included, as long as it is done responsibly."

The drone episode at Manchester airport and two others reported over Portsmouth and Nashua are included in a new Federal Aviation Administration database of unwanted drone sightings.

While it may seem "stupid" for a hobbyist to fly a drone over a commercial airport, according to the FAA report it has become increasingly common.

Being common

About 25 times a month nationwide, pilots report seeing drones or model planes operating near their aircraft, the FAA said in its report. And in 25 incident reports filed since June, those drones almost collided with much larger aircraft.

The FAA database contains three near-misses occurring in New Hampshire airspace this year, between Aug. 23 and Sept. 27.

At 2:20 p.m. on Aug. 23, the pilot of a Cessna C337 reported seeing a UAS, described as a delta-wing model jet, passing 500 feet over his aircraft while he flew along at 3,000 feet, roughly 5 miles south of Boire Field Airport in Nashua. The pilot was unable to determine the color of the UAS.

On Sept. 14, the pilot of a Piper PA31 aircraft reported a lime-green, 4-blade recreational quadracopter was traveling about 200 feet below him as he flew westbound over Portsmouth at 9:40 a.m. The incident was reported to state police, who were unable to find the craft's operator.

The third report involved the incident over the runway at Manchester Boston Regional Airport.

Airport officials said they were aware of the pilot's report.

"This appears to be an isolated incident and FAA is looking further into the report," wrote Tom Malafronte, the airport's assistant director, in an email. He directed all further questions regarding the report to the FAA's regional office.

When questioned about the New Hampshire incidents, Arlene Salac, a spokesperson for the FAA's New England regional office, issued a statement saying, "The FAA is in the process of executing a plan for safe and staged integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System. In partnership with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the FAA has identified unsafe and unauthorized UAS operations and contacted the individual operators to educate them about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The agency has also issued notices of proposed civil penalties to individuals for unsafe and unauthorized UAS operations."

Salac also appeared to downplay the data appearing in the FAA's own report.

"The increase in UAS reports can be attributed to increased awareness by pilots and the public and improved reporting and record keeping processes," said Salac. "We saw a similar trend with lasers. As the agency worked to increase awareness of the risks of pointing lasers at airplanes, the number of reports increased significantly."

What if?

DeVries said while the odds against a drone making a direct strike with an aircraft engine are slim, such a hit could destroy an engine.

"When recreational drones started showing up on the market they were small and were pretty much confined to the back yard hobbyist," said DeVries. "Today drones have become more numerous and are getting larger all the time. These things are everywhere. While the risk is low, it would only take one drone being ingested into an engine or crashing through a windscreen while a plane was taking off or landing to create a very serious situation, and the possibility of a crash is certainly a potential. Everyone remembers the miracle on the Hudson River when a few birds showed up at just the wrong time and brought down a U.S. Air passenger plane when they got sucked into the engines."

The reported increase in dangerous encounters comes as the FAA is facing pressure from federal lawmakers and drone manufacturers to move more quickly to open the skies to remotely controlled aircraft.

Under a 2012 law, Congress ordered the FAA to safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The FAA is still developing regulations to make that happen, a process expected to take several more years.

Under FAA guidelines, it is legal for hobbyists to fly small drones for recreational purposes, as long as they keep them under 400 feet, at least five miles away from airports and outside other restricted areas. Flying drones for commercial purposes is largely prohibited, although the FAA has begun to issue special permits to filmmakers and other industries to operate drones on a case-by-case basis until the agency can adopt a final set of safety regulations.

The National Parks Service prohibits drones from being flown in national parks, and all property and land owned and administered by the National Parks Services. That includes the 161-mile long Appalachian Trail. Drones are allowed to fly in the White Mountains - aside from a shared area with trail - as long as they don't take off or land in specially designated wilderness areas, according to the National Forest Service. Those areas include the Pemigewasset, Presidential, Great Gulf, Caribou-Speckled and Sandwich Range wildernesses, roughly 148,000 acres of the forest.

The view from here

Manchester police Sgt. Brian O'Keefe said his department has familiarized itself with the regulations, in case they are called to investigate.

"Picture an inverted wedding cake," said Sgt. O'Keefe. "From the elevation of the airport up to 4,000 feet, a horizontal radius of 5 miles is considered restricted air space. From 4000 feet up to 18,000 feet, there is a 10 mile horizontal radius for restricted airspace. Therefore, if the drone in Manchester was seen in the area of the Derryfield Country Club and Interstate 93, it would most likely fall in the restricted airspace based on the fact it was 1,500 feet in the air."

State police spokesman Lt. James Maslan said his department has received few reports to investigate drone sightings.

"When we receive calls of this nature, the duty units in the area of the airport are advised of the situation," said Maslan. "The troopers respond to the area looking for any activity regarding this event. The problem is, how do you know how the drone got there, or where it's coming from?"

Regarding the report at Manchester Regional airport in September, Maslan said investigating troopers were unable to find a drone or operator.

Under NH RSA 422:29, the penalties for violating these restrictions range from $100 for a first offense to $500 for third and all subsequent offenses.

Self-policing

The reports of close calls are prompting some within the drone industry to request tougher standards governing their use.

"The recent FAA data about safety risks is not a reflection of what a well-regulated commercial market will look like after appropriate rules are in place," said Michael E. Drobac, executive director of the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Coalition, which promotes the safe commercial use of unmanned aircraft, in a statement. "It is a reflection of how UAV technology development and consumer and commercial demand for UAVs is outpacing regulation, creating an even more urgent need for clarity from the FAA."

Among the companies that are part of the Small UAV Coalition is Amazon.com, which wants to use autonomous drones to deliver small packages to customers' doorsteps.

Rapid advances in technology have made small drones affordable and easy for people to fly right out of the box. Some models cost less than $500. Most come with powerful miniature cameras.

DeVries hopes a careless few don't spoil the fun for the majority of law-abiding drone users in New Hampshire.

"A few drone flyers who don't understand or care about the risk they pose are going to bring intense pressure on the government to regulate all drones," said DeVries. "This action could destroy the hobby for many people and for the safe and legitimate commercial drone operations. I hope anyone reading this will pay more attention to where they are flying them."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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