Misbehaving drones increasingly plague UK and US skies

Oh, those bad, bad drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been spotted hovering over playgrounds, hurtling through the skies over London’s Hyde Park, dropping packets of drugs into prison, gawking at a sunbather, following somebody home and then hovering outside their bedroom window, buzzing at 365 metres (1,200 feet) above Liverpool city centre, being flown over a house by neighbours tied up in a six-year boundary dispute, and lingering above people to apparently record them as they entered their PINs into ATMs.

That last one? It crashed.

Given that nobody was hurt, let’s all feel free to give a hearty “Huzzah!”

Those are just some of the naughty-drone incidents reported in the UK, revealed by police after The Guardian filed a freedom of information request.

Meanwhile, in the US, drone rage has spiraled into the heftiest fine ever: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this month proposed a record $1.9 million fine against an aerial photography company for flying drones in crowded New York and Chicago airspace without permission.

In both the UK and the US, the soaring popularity of these often wobbly, far too often meteor-like flying gadgets is matched by soaring reports of their operators’ misconduct.

As of 27 September, the FAA had logged 920 reports of drone sightings so far this year – a sharp spike from 288 sightings reported in 2014.

In the UK, a similar spike is happening with reports coming from drone-harassed members of the public who report the UAVs to their local police.

According to figures provided to The Guardian, Thames Valley Police recorded 80 incidents so far this year, compared with 21 in 2014.

London’s Metropolitan Police logged 21 cases in 2015, up from one lone incident in the previous year.

Over the past 24 months, UK police have recorded these incidents among plenty more:

  • Concerns about drones flown over packed crowds at Hyde Park: a film-maker was fined £1,125 earlier this month, for illegally flying his drone over Hyde Park without permission during a shoot for a promotional video.
  • Drugs (as well as knives, cameras and phones: all contraband) being dropped into prisons.
  • Intrusion: Greater Manchester Police (GMP), for example, took one call that described how the “occupant of house nearby is sending a radio-controlled drone over address where [informant] is sunbathing. Believe is taking photos. Been over three times now.”
  • Distracted drivers: GMP logged one incident, titled “Drone causing trouble,” noting that – “someone is flying this drone over this junction. Looks like a giant spider and everyone is looking at it and not where they are going.”
  • Merseyside police, among many other police departments, have logged reports about the use of camera drones near children. One log entry: “Drone over Funland playground – adult challenged.” Another: “Suspicious circumstances. Drone near children’s play area.”

Meanwhile, in the US, SkyPan International Inc. is facing the biggest-ever FAA fine. The company markets 360-degree “bird’s-eye views” of some of the country’s most congested airspace and heavily populated cities.

The FAA alleges that between 21 March 2012, and 15 December 2014, SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorised operations in New York City and Chicago, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules.

Of those flights, 43 flew in the highly restricted New York Class B airspace, according to the FAA – flights that were allegedly illegal and which could have been dangerous.

SkyPan was given 30 days to respond after receiving the FAA’s 6 October enforcement letter.

SkyPan’s response: Gulp!

When CBS News reached out to SkyPan spokesman Karl Brewick to get the company’s take on the fine, he told the reporter that “he’s had better days.”

He declined further comment, saying the company hasn’t had a chance to review the civil filing and can’t comment until it has.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told CBS News that the Department of Transportation was reviewing whether the FAA has the authority to require drones be registered at point of sale.

Drones are currently exempt from registration because they’re considered to be hobby aircraft and aren’t supposed to operate below 400 feet.

Rules like those are clearly being disregarded, if operators are even aware of them to begin with.

When drones were getting in the way of pilots battling wildfires in California, this summer, a spokesman for the US Forest Service, Chon Bribiescas, noted that the drone-flying public seems to be oblivious to the risks:

These folks who are handling these drones, I have to assume they have no idea what they're doing. They not only endangered the folks on the ground, but they endanger the pilots.

Image of drone in flight courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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