By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
The recent revelation that a U.S. airliner nearly collided with a drone over Florida earlier this year is adding urgency to the need for the FAA to move on developing operating rules for commercial drones. Such policies are now expected, in initial form, late this year, are more than seven years in the making. Final rules won’t likely come for several more years. This near-miss should only serve as a further wake-up call to the FAA that the time is long overdue for clear operating policies and safety standards for this important technology.
The FAA revealed the near-miss at a drone conference in San Francisco last week. It occurred last March, about 2,300 feet above ground near the Tallahassee Regional Airport. The airline pilot said he was so close to the drone that he thought the two aircraft collided, but that wasn’t the case and no damage was found on the airliner. It’s still unclear as to the operator of the drone—government or civilian.
The head of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, Jim Williams, said the government is working as fast as it can but says, “the regulatory process is very slow and deliberative.” A spokesperson for a drone trade association said most operators run their aircraft safely, but without guidelines from the FAA, Gretchen Williams told an interviewer “…it’s almost a free for all.” And she cautions the lack of rules makes incidents like this one increasingly likely.
So more and more operators have simply chosen to flaunt the FAA’s admonition that drones not be used commercially until the rules are issued. This is increasingly true among those who fly drones and provide news footage to broadcast outlets. A growing number of TV station news chiefs are saying if they’re offered pictures of a news event shot by a drone, such as the recent aftermath of the Alabama tornadoes and Florida Panhandle floods, they’ll use it and worry about any consequences later.
RTDNA continues to work alongside other news organizations to press the FAA for decisive action to lay out the parameters for commercial drones, including a brief we filed with the NTSB outlining our concerns. All of us believe safety—in the air and on the ground—is the top priority. Rulemaking by the FAA as soon as possible is what’s needed to insure a safe operating environment for these aircraft which provide an important dimension to our news coverage and to the public’s right to know.
Let’s hope this incident provides even more urgency to moving the issue ahead, rather than fuel any smoldering embers of the anti-drone fire.