Are civilian drones safe? New York police report a close encounter.

A police helicopter's midnight encounter with a toy aircraft above New York's George Washington Bridge highlights the growing threat civilian drones can pose to air traffic.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
A camera drone, flown by civilian Brian Wilson, flies near two buildings destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City, March 12, 2014.

The arrest early Tuesday of two men who allegedly flew remotely controlled toy aircraft into the path of a New York Police helicopter is highlighting both the growing threat that civilian drones pose to traditional aircraft as well as the complicated and fast-changing laws surrounding their use.

The officers in the police helicopter said they received a shock when they were forced to avoid one or two small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that meandered into their airspace above the city’s George Washington Bridge after midnight Monday.

After evading the UAVs – commonly called drones – they tailed the objects until they landed at Fort Tyson Park in Manhattan. Officers in the police helicopter then contacted patrolmen on foot who arrested the two drone operators on charges of reckless endangerment.

“Although drones may only weigh a few pounds, that’s all birds weigh, and look at what it did to the Sully Airbus,” a police source told the New York Post, referring to a 2009 incident in which US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullivan was forced to land a commercial flight on the Hudson River when his plane hit a flock of birds after takeoff.

The two hobbyists, Remy Castro, 23, and Wilkins Mendoza, 34, were dismissive of the severity of the incident.

“It’s just a toy,” Mr. Castro said at Manhattan Criminal Court. “The copter came to us.”

The Federal Aviation Administration typically allows the recreational use of small drones so long as they stay below 400 feet and outside the vicinity of airports. Police say the two arrested men were flying their helicopters at 2,000 feet, but their lawyer put the altitude at 300 feet. The charge of reckless endangerment stems from the allegation that a drone obstructed the helicopter.

Experts, however, aren’t so sure the charges will stick.

“Could the flight alone be evidence of utter disregard for the value of human life? Probably not,” Gregory McNeal, an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University who specializes in laws concerning drone use, wrote in Forbes.

That doesn’t mean that civilian drone use isn’t a serious problem for traditional planes. On the contrary, as drones take the sky around the country, close calls between planes and UAVs are becoming more and more common, with 15 cases of drones flying dangerously close to airports or aircrafts as of June 23, according to The Washington Post.

Among the more dramatic incidents was a close call in September 2013, when a passenger plane approaching Phoenix avoided an oncoming drone by only 50 feet.

What’s more, while many of these drones ran afoul of the law by obstructing aircraft, many others are illegal whether or not they actively endanger others.

According to Ladd Sanger, an attorney specializing in aviation at the Dallas law firm Slack & Davis, this distinction depends on whether or not a drone is used for commercial purposes.

“If you’re a farmer and you’re flying a UAV for fun and happen to look at your crops, that’s legal, but if you’re flying it specifically to monitor your crops, it’s illegal,” he says. “If you want to film a concert … for your own purposes, that’s fine, but if you film it and put it on the market and sell it, that’s not.”

Industry groups have called this distinction arbitrary, and criticized the FAA for obstructing a potential drone-related boon.

“It makes no sense from a safety standpoint,” says Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va. “The whole basis [for the scrutiny of commercial drones] is predicated on protecting the humans in the aircraft. Here you have no humans in the aircraft, so what difference does it make?”

Though the FAA was scheduled to create a regulatory framework for small, commercial UAVs by September 2015, the Department of Transportation inspector general said last week that the project was significantly behind schedule and would not be completed until at least 2016.

In the meantime, companies can apply for specific exemptions from the FAA that would allow them to operate drones for specific tasks, such as surveying and pipeline inspection. Many companies, however, such as newspapers and real estate brokerages, are already operating drones illegally across the country, taking advantage of the FAA’s administrative inability to prosecute drone violations at the micro-level.

Some commentators are lauding these companies, calling them a sign of the ingenuity of the American people.

“While bureaucrats dither, many US businesses are engaging in regulatory civil disobedience,” conservative commentator L. Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, wrote in the Journal in March.

Others, however, point to the dangers of unregulated drone activity – both to individuals on the ground and in the air.

Among them is Sean Cassidy, the safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, who expressed safety concerns for flight crews in an interview with Bloomberg after a judge for the National Transportation Safety Board briefly stripped the FAA of its regulatory authority in May.

“I don’t envy the folks over at FAA right now having to contend with this,” he said.

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