Bobby Bennett’s recent close encounter with a drone made him wonder: Could a drone interfere with medical helicopters that fly over his house near Silas Creek Parkway on their way to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center?
“It was so close, if it had not been for the oak trees, I could have touched it from the top of our house,” Bennett said Monday.
Bennett’s concerns raise questions about the increasingly precarious intersection between drones, or unmanned aircraft, and conventional manned aircraft such as planes and helicopters.
One of the clearest examples of a close call between an unmanned and manned aircraft happened last month in Southern California.
A fast-moving wildfire swept across a freeway in a mountain pass, destroying 20 vehicles and sending motorists running to safety before burning at least four structures, according to The Associated Press. Aircraft sent to douse the flames were briefly delayed after five drones were spotted above the blaze, fire officials said.
It was the fourth time in the span of a month that a drone disrupted efforts to suppress a wildfire in Southern California, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Lee Beyer said, the AP reported.
The incidents led to an announcement last week by the Federal Aviation Administration, in which FAA officials said they want to “send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal.”
No problems — yet
Above Bennett’s house, the drone’s movements were “creepy” and “deliberate,” he said, darting left, shifting right, and then hovering in place, almost motionless except for its rotors. “It looked like a big insect,” said Bennett, 61. “If that thing got out of control, I can’t even imagine what it would do to a helicopter.”
So far, there have been no reports of problems, according to officials at both Smith Reynolds Airport and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“We’ve had more complaints about lasers than anything else,” said Larry Holland, an air traffic controller at the airport.
Similarly, Wake Forest Baptist spokesman Mac Ingraham said, “We have not had any safety issues with drones.
Traditionally, if a helicopter elects to fly in uncontrolled airspace with other aircraft it is up to the pilots to avoid each other under VFR, or Visual Flight Rules, said Mark Davidson, the director of Smith Reynolds Airport.
But what if a medical helicopter pilot heading to Wake Forest Baptist did have a safety concern about a drone?
Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman, said that the pilot could report the problem to the local air traffic controller.
The controller could then pass the complaint on to a local law enforcement agency, which could try to identify the drone operator, according to Dorr.
Ultimately, the information would have to be passed on to the federal government because any penalty would have to be imposed by the FAA.
FAA rules govern some drone uses
Drones are increasingly available — and affordable. Some, equipped with video cameras, can be purchased at hobby stores starting at about $500.
The emergence of the unmanned aircraft is such that Kevin Baker, the executive director at Piedmont Triad International Airport, has had to deal with the issue occasionally. For example, the airport plays host to Run on the Runway, an event that allows runners to use the 9,000-foot runway.
Ahead of the event, Baker said, airport officials had to decline requests made to fly drones overhead.
Separately, there have been no reported instances of close calls between drones and planes, Baker said.
Still, the emergence of drones is something that “must be dealt with,” he said.
Comprehensive rules governing drones are being drafted by the FAA.
For now, there are some uses that do not require permission from federal or state governments.
Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, hobbyists can fly drones but must adhere to certain restrictions. They must stay under 400 feet, for example. Among other restrictions, drone operators must not fly within 5 miles of an airport unless they contact the airport and control tower before flying.
Another general rule is that hobbyists flying for fun do not have to receive permission from the FAA but those who plan to receive any sort of compensation for flying the drone must receive a special exemption from the FAA from a nationwide ban on commercial uses.
So, a drone operator could take photos or video of a downtown parade for fun, but if the operator plans to sell those photos to, say, the parade organizer, then the drone operator would need to get an FAA exemption from the commercial ban.
With drones becoming more prevalent, they pose an issue that deserves attention, according to Davidson, the Smith Reynolds director.
“With our mix of traffic at Smith Reynolds Airport, an unauthorized drone operating in the airspace can create a safety hazard. Our mix of traffic includes B737, flight instruction, corporate jets, helicopters, and even a blimp this week.
“If users follow the rules and stay out of the restricted airspace, the risks would decrease dramatically. However, it appears that around the United States, some drone operators are breaking the rules,” Davidson said.