New Mexico pilots report close calls with drones

KRQE Investigates

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – There are strict rules for flying drones but not everyone is following those rules, and that’s leading to more close calls in the sky.

On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13’s Gabrielle Burkhart shows viewers some of the dangers aircraft pilots are facing.

Sergeant Will Taylor of the Albuquerque Police Air Support Unit has been a pilot for 28 years. When he gets into the pilot seat of the APD’s helicopter Air One, he’s on the lookout for trouble.

“We’re information gatherers, so obviously we see the big picture that you can’t necessarily see from the ground,” Sergeant Taylor explained.

He advises ground crews when a suspect is on the run to help keep everyone safe in dangerous situations. Police also have an eye in the sky during Albuquerque’s largest event.

APD’s helicopter, Air One.

“We help the traffic officers with the flow of traffic, watch parking lots for criminal activity,” Sergeant Taylor explained his role during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

But nothing could have prepared the veteran pilot for what happened during Balloon Fiesta two years ago.

“It was at night, it was dark,” he recalled. “All of a sudden my tactical flight officer called out, ‘Drone!’ and the next thing I know the lights zipped right past us literally almost right under our rotor disc, so it was very, very near miss.”

Sergeant Taylor

He said his helicopter was flying at 600 feet, 200 feet above a drone’s approved air space. Plus, the drone operator in this case didn’t have permission to fly at the special event.

“It could have been catastrophic,” said Sergeant Taylor.

He’s not the only pilot who’s recently had a close call with a drone. Nearly two dozen close calls have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in New Mexico in three years.

Pilots reported near misses with drones that are usually flying much higher than what’s allowed, or where they’re not supposed to.

In one report, UNM police sent officers to look for a drone operator who was flying near the hospital’s helipad, which poses obvious safety concerns.

Unauthorized drones have also grounded fire fighting crews trying to battle the Bonita and Cajete fires in 2017.

Researchers at the University of Dayton in Ohio designed a test to mimic a midair collision of a drone and a commercial aircraft at flight speeds, showing how much more damage a drone can do than a bird strike.

Image from University of Dayton Research Institute drone impact testing

When asked if a drone collision could be worse than a bird strike, Sergeant Taylor responded, “Oh absolutely, and I mean you figure a drone can be several pounds.”

Drone operators endangering the public face hefty fines and even jail time. “We can take civil penalties in the tens of thousands of dollars per occurrence,” explained Joe Morra, Director of Safety and Integration for the FAA UAS integration office.

But tracking down the drone operators has always been the challenge. New remote identification technology might help with that.

APD started using a new tool which helps track drones in a pilot’s airspace and identifies their serial number and operator of the drone.

“It will tell us how many drones are up, how far they are, where they are, what the speed is of the drone, what the altitude of the drone is,” Sergeant Taylor said.

With an evolving industry, more commercial aircraft may start to use this technology. “The hope is the rules that we promulgate will foster that type of innovation that can improve safety, not only for drones but for manned pilots too,” Morra said.

For now, the FAA says anyone flying a drone should educate themselves. Keeping the drone within line of sight and below 400 feet are basic requirements from the FAA.

Users can also log on to an app to check flight restrictions around their location. “The bottom line is we want to do everything we can through education, outreach, discussions with law enforcement, rules, to prevent those collisions from happening in the first place,” Morra explained.

For the tracking technology to work effectively, a drone has to be registered with the FAA, similar to registering your car. However, drone operators are on the honor system when it comes to registration.

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