Pilot reports of unmanned aerial systems have topped 650 so far this year – well over the 238 reported for all of 2014, the FAA said this week. The agency said there was a big jump in sightings this summer, with 138 pilot reports in June and 137 in July. Meanwhile, there were just 52 reports for the June-July 2014 period. The sightings were at altitudes up to 10,000 feet and came from a variety of aircraft, from large air carriers to helicopters, the FAA said. On Wednesday, a medical helicopter reported having to maneuver to avoid a UAS while flying at 1,000 feet AGL. Over the summer, unmanned aircraft interfering with aerial firefighting operations prompted the FAA and the National Interagency Fire Center to issue a warning to UAS flyers to stay clear of fires, reminding them that unsafe operations could result in jail time and fines up to $25,000. The FAA, while wrangling with forming UAS safety rules in the personal and commercial sectors, has attempted to curtail problems with similar public safety announcements for airports and sports venues.
The FAA hasn’t been tracking UAS encounters for very long and this could be a factor in the big jump in numbers, as noted in a Wall Street Journal report on the rise in sightings. “Last year’s data would be much less certain because the process wasn’t in place,” former FAA executive Jim Williams told the Journal. “Some of what you’re seeing year-over-year is just an increase in reporting.” Williams, who now advises UAS makers, also said in the report that despite the concerns, collisions with a small UAS aren’t a major hazard overall. “People tend to forget how big the sky is and how small these little quadcopters are,” he said. “Every airplane is designed to take a hit from a 5-pound bird and keep flying. If an engine eats [a drone], it’ll be expensive to fix. But the likelihood of one of these little guys taking down an aircraft is very remote.