AP NEWS

Drones pose safety issues at Danbury, Sikorsky airports

April 14, 2019

DANBURY — Temperatures aren’t the only things rising this time of year — serious concerns about drones are, too.

“With spring and summer coming, I imagine there are going to be a lot more people flying drones,” said Mike Safranek, assistant administrator at Danbury Municipal Airport. “This is an extreme safety concern for the airport because it’s life and death on the line.”

Drones have become increasingly popular over the last three or four years, said Safranek, which is “very dangerous from an airport standpoint.”

And their popularity is causing anxiety at large and small airports around the country — and in fact, around the world. Over the last few months, airports from New Jersey to as far away as Dublin, Ireland and Dubai have grounded flights after drones were spotted in the vicinity of their tarmacs.

Small unmanned aircraft are a concern for other Connecticut airports like the Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, a Bridgeport-owned airport located in Stratford.

“I wouldn’t say they’re a problem, but I would say that they’re a concern for all airports,” said Michelle Muoio, Sikorsky Memorial Airport manager.

With drones are becoming more common and rules pertaining to them still evolving, Muoio said, it’s important to “raise awareness about drones and what the responsibilities of a drone operator are.”

Recent scramble

Last Sunday in Danbury, several fixed-wing aircraft pilots reported a drone in the airspace as they were landing, Safranek said.

“When a pilot reports it to the tower, the tower is obligated to call the airport, and when I get notified, I’m obligated to call the police,” Safranek said — and that’s exactly what happened.

The suspected drone operator was spotted on Harvard Drive, wearing “a red hoodie or sweatshirt,” Safranek said.

Four officers scoured the neighborhood looking for the drone and its operator, but never found them.

“We don’t like having officers traversing a neighborhood looking for a drone guy — but we’d much rather have them find a drone guy than a plane crash,” said Safranek.

About 60,000 aircraft fly in and out of Danbury Municipal Airport each year, according to Safranek. “We’re the No. 1 or No. 2 general aviation airport in New England,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t realize that a drone can bring down a plane — that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Although Sikorsky hasn’t had such an experience, Muoio said, drones outside the airport’s airspace have raised alarm.

“The air traffic controller has gotten reports from pilots out of our airspace who have seen drones way above the altitudes that they really should be flying — like 1,000 to 1,500 feet,” she said. “That is very concerning.”

Safranek said his biggest concern is how a pilot would react to a drone is in his or her flight path during takeoff or landing. These, he said, are two “critical phases of flight.”

“If you’re driving down Main Street and a car pulls out a little too far, your reaction is to swerve. If you do that in a critical phase of flight, you’re going to have an adverse reaction on the aircraft,” Safranek said. “We’re constantly worried about a drone popping up into a flight path and a pilot having an adverse reaction and crashing.”

In an effort to prevent that, Safranek said, he and the Danbury Fire Department’s drone program administrator, Jamie Gagliardo, are trying to educate people about the dangers of flying drones in airport airspace, as well as the legal repercussions for doing so without permission.

Laws and regulations

“It’s against federal law to operate an aircraft without prior authorization or permission within five miles of an airport,” Safranek said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize there are federal agencies that will prosecute.”

Since the city of Danbury doesn’t have an ordinance pertaining to drones, he said, the airport’s protocol is to “take a person’s information down and turn it over to federal authorities.”

Drones are considered “real” aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and all operators must comply with federal rules, regulations and safety requirements.

Drones can only be flown in uncontrolled airspace below 400 feet above the ground, and commercial drone operators need permission from the FAA before flying in controlled airspace.

“More reputable” drones, like the ones used by the city’s fire department, come with built-in geofencing technology that prevent them from going into restricted areas, Gagliardo said — but cheap drones, like the ones sold in malls, don’t come with such restrictions.

A drone with geofencing technology will “hover midair” once it reaches a restricted area boundary, he said. “It can go up and down and side to side, but it won’t propel forward no matter how much you try.”

The fire department had to petition the maker of one of its drones to lift the built-in restrictions so that it can be used for public safety purposes, said Gagliardo.

“Cheap drones, like the ones you can buy at a center kiosk at the mall, don’t even come with restrictions — and those can go 1,000 feet in the air,” Gagliardo said.

Those drones, he said, pose a huge risk because they can hinder the fire department’s public safety efforts.

If the department is using a drone for a search and rescue mission, SWAT response or at a fire scene and another drone enters the airspace, Gagliardo said, the fire department has to withdraw its aircraft until the airspace is cleared.

“FAA rules and regulations say to avoid public safety scenes like structure fires — there’s a bunch of stuff you’re not allowed to fly around,” Gagliardo said.

The FAA prohibits drone-flying in a number of areas, including airports, stadiums and sporting events. They may also not be flown over any emergency or rescue operations.

Even “town parks, dog parks, state parks and flying over people” are off limits for non-commercial drone operators, Gagliardo said.

Safranek said even with a commercial license, a drone operator needs authorization and the air traffic control tower’s approval before flying in the airport’s airspace.

About 50 authorization forms have been approved for the Danbury airport area, said Safranek — mostly for commercial use like surveying.

Muoio, at Sikorsky, said she believes “awareness of commercial operators” needs improvement.

“There are differences between a recreational user and a commercial operator of a drone, and a commercial operator has stricter rules that they need to follow,” she said. “I don’t think entities are as aware as they need to be about flying drones for commercial purposes. If you’re operating for commercial purposes, it’s different than if you’re operating a drone for recreational purposes.”

Although they typically “do what they’re supposed to,” Muoio said, there have been occasions where commercial operators — who have their certificates of authorization — have flown in Sikorsky’s airspace but failed to inform the air traffic control tower.

Safranek and Gagliardo said they fear drone problems will only get worse, and that’s why they’re trying to inform the public about the dangers associated with them.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to save human lives,” Safranek said.

kendra.baker@hearst.com