On the evening of Nov. 27, a Maverick tour helicopter pilot spotted something unusual while flying near the Las Vegas Strip.
The pilot called air traffic control to report a drone sighting, estimating the flying machine was about 500 feet below the helicopter in restricted airspace.
Data show an uptick in unauthorized drone sightings in Nevada and across the nation. Federal and local agencies are working to make the skies — and the people below — safer.
“It’s a growing problem,” said Chris Walach, executive director of the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems.
Hard to detect
Bryan Kroten, vice president of marketing for Maverick Aviation Group, said the encounter posed no risks to the helicopter.
“No matter what, when we see a drone, we report it,” he said. “At 500 feet away, it’s within our comfort zone. It’s not an issue.”
Kroten said Maverick pilots report a drone sighting a couple times each month, and the volume has been steady the past few years. For the rest of Nevada, unauthorized drone sightings are a growing trend.
According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 659 reported drone sightings in the second quarter of 2017 in the U.S., three of which were in Nevada. This year, there were 784 sightings in the second quarter, including 16 in Nevada.
These numbers cover all reports, which are not independently verified. Still, Walach believes drones operating unsafely are underreported.
“These helicopter and commercial airplanes are likely not seeing drones that are incurring in their controlled airspace,” he said. “The drones are so tiny. … It’s hard to detect them audibly and visually.”
An FAA spokesman said the number of reported drone sightings could be increasing for a variety of reasons.
“There are simply more drones out there,” he said via email. “Pilots are aware there are more drones out there and are vigilant in reporting what they believe are drone sightings.”
According to FAA data, there were 297 registered hobbyist drone pilots in Nevada as of November.
Walach said Nevada’s conference and tourism market means there are more opportunities for unsafe drone operations.
“We’re in a unique situation in Nevada because we have the entertainment capital of the world and we’re becoming the drone conference center capital of the world,” he said. “This makes it optimal for people to fly drones out here.”
Focus on education
According to the FAA, the best tool to increase drone safety is education.
“We believe most people want to fly safely and care about safety,” a spokesman said. “But many, if not most, drone users have little to no prior aviation experience, and might not know what operating safely entails. Drone operators have to understand that as soon as they start flying outside, they are pilots with the responsibility to operate safely, just like pilots of manned aircraft.”
To help combat misinformation, the FAA launched the Know Before You Fly campaign in 2014. The initiative provides educational resources to drone pilots. This year, the agency launched a drone safety campaign aimed at kids that uses a cartoon drone named Buzzy.
Walach said Nevada’s high tourist numbers mean even more drone pilots are unfamiliar with local laws.
“When they go to a vacation spot like Vegas, they’re going to pull out a drone from their luggage and fly by a pool to get a viral shot, and they’re going to put in on their Facebook,” he said.
This year, the NIAS launched the Nevada Drone Center of Excellence for Public Safety, which focuses on increasing drone safety awareness. The center was launched after a series of incidents, from a drone flying close to a passenger jet landing at McCarran International Airport to reports of falling drones injuring tourists.
“We’re trying to grow national and state awareness of a problem,” Walach said.
For those who do operate drones illegally, the FAA does have the authority to issue fines.
People who operate drones unsafely can face fines of up to $1,437 per violation, and businesses can be made to pay up to $32,666 per violation. Additionally, people who fly drones unsafely face federal criminal penalties, with fines of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to three years.
“While our preference is to educate people about safe drone operations, we don’t hesitate to take strong enforcement action against drone pilots when warranted,” the FAA spokesman said.