Drones sighted near N.C. airports

On the way to landing at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the pilot of Air Wisconsin Flight 3736 came upon an unexpected traveler 5,000 feet above the ground: a drone.

It isn’t clear whether the person on the ground flying the drone by remote control even knew that the drone was in the vicinity of the Air Wisconsin flight. Neither is it clear exactly how close the drone got to the plane.

What is clear is that the drone was close enough to be seen.

On May 10, the Air Wisconsin pilot told the air traffic control tower that “the drone flew from right to left of his nose,” according to a database compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration of UAS incidents nationwide since mid-November.

There have been 13 incidents in North Carolina involving drones and one involving a gyrocopter, according to a review of the FAA database.

The database, released last month, provides a first raw compilation of sightings of unmanned aircraft, most of them reported by pilots.

More than 700 incidents in the U.S. from mid-November to Aug. 20 fill the database.

Among the key incidents: a Predator-style drone capable of carrying Hellfire missiles crashed in a residential area in California south of Edwards Air Force Base, the Journal has reported; a pilot spotted a UFO more than 50,000 feet above Washington; and a privately-owned drone was flying too close to Los Angeles International Airport.

How dangerous are incidents?

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, or AMA, tries to warn against making too much of the incidents.

“Because of the preliminary nature of the reports and with no analysis or investigative findings, it’s virtually impossible to determine the extent of the problem and very difficult to tell how many people may or may not be flying where they shouldn’t.

“We need more information from the FAA to better understand the issue and to mitigate the true safety risks,” said Richard Hanson, the AMA’s government and regulatory affairs director.

Overstating the risk that drones may pose could give the FAA more leverage to impose rules on responsible hobbyists who fly drones, according to the AMA, which has a long history of promoting flight safety for model aircraft. AMA members voluntarily comply with safety guidelines or risk having their benefits revoked; benefits include liability insurance.

Among the safety guidelines, the AMA says drone operators should fly under 400 feet, keep the drone in line of sight, stay clear of aircraft, and make contact with an airport or air traffic control tower before flying within 5 miles.

None of the 14 incidents in North Carolina was classified as “close calls,” AMA officials say.

One of the incidents involved a gyrocopter, which are typically manned aircraft, not unmanned.

Most of the reports say that no evasive action was taken, and the rest either do not clearly say what type of action occurred or involved an incident that did not require any action. One sighting, for example, did not come from a pilot; it was a sighting of a drone near the Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers play.

Drone business picked up speed last year at Anderson R/C in Thomasville, said Matt Anderson, who along with his brother, Wes, opened the store seven years ago.

“A lot of our sales are from the entry-level quads (drones with four propellers) and up — that’s definitely a big part of our business,” Anderson said.

Many model-aircraft enthusiasts — the kind who would become members of the Academy of Modern Aeronautics — are usually well-versed in good flight safety standards, Anderson said, but many new drone users are not.

Congress passed a law in 2012 on how the FAA should go about setting rules to integrate drones into the national airspace. The rules are meant to regulate usage of commercial drones and those used by public agencies.

There is some gray area on how the FAA is supposed to handle drones flown by hobbyists.

On the one hand, the law says that the FAA is not supposed to make rules to regulate drones used by hobbyists. On the other hand, the same law says that the FAA may draft such rules — if users do not follow a certain set of safety guidelines, including staying away from airports and aircraft.

For now, hobbyists do not require permission from federal or state governments to fly drones.

The AMA and Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International try to raise awareness about flight safety. But as things stand, there are no requirements for drone shoppers to undergo any type of flight education course.