As hundreds of thousands of drones are sold, the biggest fear blanketing a congressional hearing on drones and aviation safety Wednesday was the possibility that a drone could collide with an airliner.
"We need to do more to reduce the likelihood of a drone coming in the flight path of a commercial airliner with hundreds of people on board," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. The hundreds of reports of suspected drone sightings near planes this year "suggest that allowing anyone to fly a drone on or near the nation's airways is like letting people drive remote control cars on the interstate," he said.
Members of Congress urged the Federal Aviation Administration to take action to prevent an incident.
"At this point we don't really know what happens when you suck a quadcopter into a jet engine," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
But the issues complicating the matter are many, according to the FAA and others testifying at the hearing.
For one, government officials are eager to encourage the growth of the drones for commercial or government use in areas like search and rescue, agriculture and bridge inspections, raising a concern that over-regulation could harm the expansion of the industry.
Yet a crash caused by an irresponsible drone user could also affect legitimate commercial operations, according to DeFazio.
"We take down one plane... this industry is going to ground to a halt altogether," DeFazio said.
Another issue is that there are limits in the FAA's authority to regulate recreational use of model aircraft.
There are also limits to the technology available to detect and track drones, and it can be difficult to determine who the owner is.
The FAA said it will evaluate technology to help detect drones near airports, amid a steep increase in reports of small unmanned aircraft near runways.
Yet one of the biggest issues is that many drone owners may be unaware of the safety risks of flying within five miles of an airport or near other aircraft. The agency is working on education and outreach efforts, adding: "We won't hesitate to take strong enforcement action against anyone who flies an unmanned aircraft in an unsafe or illegal manner," said FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker.
On Tuesday, the FAA proposed a $1.9 million civil penalty against a company, SkyPan International, which the agency said illegally flew in congested airspace and heavily populated areas in New York and Chicago.
Members of Congress urged the FAA to act quickly to prevent incidents.
"Something is always better than nothing when in the face of a known danger," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass.
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