CHICAGO (CBS/AP) -- Drones have become so popular in the skies above America, a Chicago transportation expert said the federal government needs to do more about the dangers of a possible mid-air accident.
Nearly every day, the federal government receives reports of drones flying near other aircraft, or close to airports without permission, according to The Associated Press. Demand for drones has continued to grow, with everyone from photographers to farmers using drones to help on the job.
Dr. Joe Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor specializing in transportation issues, said there has been an explosion in the use of drone technology. He warned the proliferation of drones has made the skies more dangerous.
"The risks here are high and though we haven't seen a major accident, it's probably only a matter of time before we either have … a close call that grabs attention, or God forbid, an accident," he said. "The good news is that most planes are big enough, the equipment wouldn't be fatal if there were an accident. The bad news is is there's a proliferation of these drones. We're seeing them flying at night, we're seeing them flying way above the legal altitudes, and that's alarming. And, of course, there's real questions about terrorists getting their hands on these things."
Schwieterman said the federal government needs to get more serious about the potential dangers, "but right now it's sort of uncharted territory, and let's hope we don't learn the hard way," he said.
Many of the reports about drones flying too close to planes, helicopters, or airports have been filed with the Federal Aviation Administration by airline pilots.
The FAA tightly restricts the use of drones, which could cause a crash if one collided with a plane or was sucked into an engine. Small drones usually aren't visible on radar to air traffic controllers, particularly if they're made of plastic or other composites.
"It should not be a matter of luck that keeps an airplane and a drone apart," said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline and a former Air Line Pilots Association safety committee chairman. "So far we've been lucky because if these things are operating in the sky unregulated, unmonitored and uncontrolled, the possibility of a close proximity event or even a collision has to be of huge concern."
The FAA requires that drone and model aircraft operators keep flights to under 400 feet in altitude, keep the aircraft within sight of the operator and stay at least 5 miles away from an airport. Small drones are often indistinguishable from model aircraft, which have grown in sophistication.
Commercial operators and government officials from police to research scientists must obtain FAA certificates of authorization to fly drones. Exceptions are made for some government drones such as those the military flies in great swaths of airspace in reserved, remote areas. Customs and Border Protection flies high-altitude drones along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada.
In some cases the FAA has "identified unsafe and unauthorized (drone) operations and contacted the individual operators to educate them about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws," the agency said in a statement late Tuesday. The FAA also said rogue operators have been threatened with fines.
More than 1 million small drones have been sold worldwide in the past few years, said Michael Toscano, president of a drone industry trade group. It is inevitable that some will misuse them because they don't understand the safety risks or simply don't care, he said.
"This technology has a phenomenal upside that people are still just trying to understand," he said. "As unfortunate as it would be that we have an incident, it's not going to shut down the industry."
The FAA was expected to propose regulations before the end of the year that would allow broader commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The FAA has prohibited nearly all commercial use of drones, although that ban has been challenged in court. So far, the only commercial permits the agency has granted have been to two oil companies operating in Alaska and seven aerial photography companies associated with movie and television production.
But the ban has been ignored by many other drone operators, from real estate agents to urban planners to farmers who use them to monitor crops.
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