National News

Drone sightings sparking increasing concern locally

Posted January 17, 2018 1:26 p.m. EST

TAMPA -- Shortly before Christmas, Hillsborough County Sheriff's pilot Jason Doyle was flying a department helicopter over east Hillsborough when he saw the lights of a drone.

It was about 800 feet below him and a half-mile away, and quite bright, said Doyle, who said the drone was being operated safely.

But not all such local encounters have been so benign.

At least 20 times between January and September last year, aircraft taking off or landing at area airports reported seeing drones, Federal Aviation Administration records show. The sightings sparked more than a dozen requests to local law enforcement to seek out the operators, including one incident where a sheriff's helicopter shadowed a drone flying near Tampa International Airport for a short distance.

By comparison, there were nine such incidents reported in 2015.

Doyle said the drone he saw wasn't near an airport. The ones encountered by pilots while taking off and landing represent a far greater danger, he said.

Doyle pointed to a study released by the FAA in November that said drones colliding with large manned aircraft can cause more structural damage than birds of the same weight. Unlike the soft mass and tissue of birds, drones are typically made of much harder materials.

With 13 pilots reporting drone sightings, TIA had the most such encounters locally, according to the FAA records, which go through last September. St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport had four, Sarasota International Airport had two and Bartow had one.

The first in the area happened Jan. 8, when the pilot of a Hawker Beechcraft B400, a small twin engine jet, saw a yellow quadcopter while traveling southbound at 4,000 feet about six miles west of TIA. The Pinellas County Sheriff's office was notified.

Five days later, an Airbus A320 passenger jet was landing at TIA when pilots reported seeing a drone flying about 4,300 feet over the Howard Frankland Bridge. At first, the pilot thought it was a group of balloons but as he got closer he said it was definitely a drone, flying off his left side less than a mile away.

On Feb, 23, an HSCO helicopter spotted a drone flying about four miles northwest of TIA. The pilot followed the drone until he found the operator and reported the incident to the tower.

Because of the increase in the number of drones flying, including those found on or near TIA, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in September issued new guidelines for operating them.

There were no specific incidents that sparked the new rules, said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. "But this is a growing issue and more and more people are flying drones, so we wanted to get out ahead of it," she said.

The new rules include no flights within five miles of any of the county's five airports without first contacting FAA Air Traffic Control and the Aviation Authority. For more information and to see restriction zones, go to Tampaairport.com/uas.

The authority will hold another meeting at the airport in May to go over the restrictions and get community input, Nipps said.

The Consumer Technology Association estimated 3.4 million drones were sold during this year's holiday shopping season. Not surprisingly, drone sightings from pilots, citizens and law enforcement have increased dramatically in recent years, according to the FAA, which says it now receives more than 100 such reports each month.

"The agency wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is dangerous and illegal," according to the FAA web page. "Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time."

Law enforcement, including the FBI in one instance, was called out more than a dozen times last year to contact the operators of drones flying near area airports, according to FAA records.

Doyle, the sheriff's office pilot, said that officers contact the operators not to arrest them, but to inform them of the rules.

"We haven't arrested anyone," Doyle said. "We prefer to educate the operators."

Despite the risks, a report released this week by the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team Drone Sightings Working Group found that only a small percentage of drone reports pose a safety risk, while the vast majority are simply sightings.

"There is general consensus that some of the sightings are potentially high risk and need to be mitigated, but the majority of sightings are not necessarily high risk," the report said

Tampa drone specialist Randy Goers, who hosts The Drone Radio Show podcast, looked at the FAA data for local airports and noted it only takes one collision to create a disaster.

"It shows that there still needs to be education for consumers," he said. "As the industry continues to grow, drone operators are going to have to follow the rules or force the government to come down harder."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.