Drone-flyers give US officials a headache: Use by hobbyists and even criminals on the increase Regulators try to assess dangers to passenger jets
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Wardens at Lee correctional institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, were taken aback recently during a routine sweep of the grounds. They discovered marijuana, cigarettes and mobile phones scattered among bushes in the no man's land that surrounds the maximum-security prison.
The guards were then astonished to find a small object with propellers attached. Closer inspection revealed it to be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better known as a drone, whose operators had evidently made an audacious attempt to breach prison security that had come unstuck when it crash-landed.
Another day, another drone controversy. The failed smuggling attempt in Bishopville, disclosed this week, is among a rash of stories relating to the remote-controlled devices as they make their onward march into American civilian life.
They have been given a huge profile boost by Amazon, which last month applied for formal federal approval to set up a testing site to develop its idea of a drone delivery service, "Prime Air".
Pilots of passenger jets have complained that there have been near misses with drones, such as an incident in Florida in March at Tallahassee regional airport.
New York police last month claimed that a drone had flown at 2,000 feet above the George Washington bridge, forcing a police helicopter to veer off course. The two operators of the UAV have been charged with reckless endangerment.
Drones - or model aeroplanes as they used to be called - have been popular in the US since the 1930s. The fuel behind the current flurry of interest is that technology and mass production have suddenly brought relatively cheap and sophisticated machines within the grasp of the general public.
DJI Phantoms, as flown over the George Washington bridge, sell on Amazon for under $500 (pounds 300), and if you add a high-definition video camera they still come in at just $1,300.
"Interest is exploding because you can put $800 on a credit card and walk out of the store with a drone, charge a battery and fly. The good news is more and more people are getting involved; the bad news is they include some who misuse the equipment or just don't know any better," said Steve Cohen, a drone enthusiast who organises the New York City user group.
A powerful driver of the new fad for flying drones is that high-definition cameras can be attached to them. Many of the new enthusiasts are not coming for the thrills and challenges of aviation, but for the photography. The technology is also being used by news media, such as dramatic footage captured on 4 July by drones flying through Independence Day fireworks.
The results may be pretty, but it's presenting the regulator in charge of US airspace, the Federal Aviation Authority, with an almighty headache. The FAA has the daunting challenge of working out how to combine drone use with commercial flights through some of the world's most congested routes.
While America waits for new regulations - the latest expected date is the end of next year - confusion is setting in. The legal environment is not keeping pace. As Cohen put it: "We have just seen the equivalent of the Model T Ford hit the road, and the horse-and-buggy regulators don't know how to deal with it."
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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