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Why America’s drone problem may not be as bad as everyone thinks

A new report suggests that drone pilots are now flying more responsibly amid heightened public concerns over the dangers of the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics analyzed FAA data and found that even as drone sales surge, drone sightings by airplane pilots have declined. Aviation safety experts have long warned that a drone sucked into an airplane engine could be devastating, hence restrictions that require drones to stay far from helicopters and airplanes.

“It looks like we’re getting the message out there,” said Rich Hanson, the AMA’s government and regulatory affairs representative. “We’re pretty confident that education is one of primary factors if not the primary factor.”

Hanson acknowledged there’s no hard proof that educational efforts spurred the change, but said the organization, which has advocated for model aircraft pilots for decades, has seen similar examples before.

[How airports and the drone industry are teaming up to protect planes]

When lithium batteries emerged in the 1990s, the AMA saw a rash of mishaps with the batteries combusting. The organization launched a campaign to educate users on how to safely charge the new batteries and saw the incidents decrease.

In December 2014 the AMA, along with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and FAA launched the “Know Before You Fly” campaign to educate a flood of new drone pilots about safety concerns. Some drones ship with safety guidelines in the box or rely on software designed to restrict dangerous flying.

Drone sales have skyrocketed from 450,000 units in 2014 to 1.14 million units in 2015, according to the Consumer Technology Association. The association expects sales to top 2.8 million in 2016.

According to the AMA analysis, drone sightings peaked in the summer of 2015 and have declined since. Even so, there are far more reported drone sightings by pilots than in 2014.

“We don’t want to minimize the risk by saying it doesn’t exist. The risk does exist,” Hanson said. “In our experience we don’t believe the risk is truly as significant as it’s been made to be.”

The organization was disappointed in the FAA and felt it hadn’t analyzed its data of drone sightings in enough detail to distinguish between innocuous and harmful incidents. The AMA concluded that only 3.3 percent of the incidents in which pilots reported seeing drones were actually near misses or close calls. 

The organization is concerned that potential legislation will restrict the model aircraft and drone pilots that it represents.

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