Judging from holiday advertising, lots of teenagers and grownups will find a drone under the Christmas tree this year. But the increasing affordability and popularity of remotely piloted airplanes and choppers is leading to conflict in Northwest skies.
A data set provided by the Federal Aviation Administration detailed a number of close calls involving manned aircraft and small drones. The frequency of near misses has gone up significantly since this summer. Private pilots reported two near misses near Everett, Washington's Paine Field. In southern Idaho, a crop duster pilot reported a drone harassed him over a potato field. Oregon had seven reports of dangerous or irresponsible drone flying, many involving unmanned helicopters.
Most of the Oregon and Washington incidents happened at altitudes between 2,000 and 4,000 feet. That's well above the allowed 400 foot ceiling for hobby drone flying. The incident involving the crop duster in Idaho appears to be the only one where the drone operator was located and questioned by law enforcement.
In a statement emailed by a FAA spokesperson on Monday, the agency said, "The increase in UAS (unmanned aircraft system) reports can be attributed to increased awareness by pilots and the public and improved reporting and record keeping processes. We saw a similar trend with lasers -- as the agency worked to increase awareness of the risks of pointing lasers at airplanes, the number of reports increased significantly."
The FAA said it is working with multiple partners "to build awareness of unmanned aircraft safety standards, laws... and educate users on the safe operation of unmanned aircraft."
Besides flying no higher than 400 feet, recreational drone operators are supposed to keep their aircraft within line of sight and stay far away from airports and manned aircraft.
The president of the Oregon Pilots Association, Mary Rosenblum, said she expects to see more reports of rogue drone operations because "the rules of where you can and cannot fly are not real well known by the general public."
"Where I think you're seeing problems is the person who goes to the hobby store, buys one of these and has no idea that there are any rules associated with them at all and gets out and sends it up into the air," Rosenblum said.
Coincidentally, Rosenblum was one of the first pilots in the Northwest to report a close call with a small drone aircraft. In the summer of 2012, she was climbing after takeoff from Troutdale Airport near Portland in a single engine Cessna 152. At an altitude of 1,100 feet, Rosenblum observed a metallic blue-green "flying wing" pass within a foot of her wingtip flying in the opposite direction.
"Any time you have any kind of near miss, it is quite disconcerting because aircraft are lightly built. They are easily damaged and they are very expensive to fix even if you don't crash," said the private pilot from Canby, Oregon.
Recent close calls involving manned aircraft and small drones
April 1, Everett, Washington
A private pilot at 2,500 feet approaching Paine Field reported a drone helicopter passed within 200 feet.
July 7, Portland, Oregon
A pilot reported passing a drone at 2,200 feet within four miles of the Portland airport.
July 23, Bellevue, Idaho
A crop duster pilot reported a drone harassed him over a potato field. A Sheriff's deputy contacted the drone pilot, who apologized and said he had not meant to hurt anyone.
Sept. 11 & 18, Portland, Oregon
An FBI agent and air traffic controllers saw someone fly a quadcopter over an FBI office in Portland, within half a mile of the Portland airport. A nearly identical report was filed a week later.
Sept. 13, Everett, Washington
A pilot reported a drone near Paine Field at 3,000 - 3,500 feet.
Sept. 20, south of Portland, Oregon
Aircraft at 3,000 feet reported a drone passed by its side just 100 feet away.
Sept. 27, Medford, Oregon
A pilot at 4,000 feet reported a drone 200 feet below.
Oct. 11, Portland, Oregon
Public safety dispatch reported a drone hovering near the Center for Health and Healing in Portland.
Oct. 24, Medford, Oregon
A pilot reported a large 4-bladed helicopter drone at 4,000 feet.