WASHINGTON — More and more often drones are flying closer to airplanes. Over the course of a year, there were 108 illegal drone sightings reported to the FAA from pilots and law enforcement across the DMV.

"There's lots of rules, and there’s a concern that the drone pilots either don’t know the rules or don’t care about the rules," Maryland pilot Herbert Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said he’s been flying for 60 years, after getting the flying bug when he was in high school. Since then, he’s logged over 7,000 hours and typically acts as a flight instructor. As someone who’s frequently in air, he said drones add another level of fear.

Rosenthal said he's been a flight instructor since 1961 and has logged thousands of miles in his 60 years of flying.
Herbert Rosenthal

"It adds to the scare factor," Rosenthal said. "One of the scariest things, even though it’s relatively rare, is a mid-air collision, whether it’s with an airplane, a bird or a toy drone."

The FAA’s website said reports of drones from pilots and law enforcement have increased dramatically over the past two years, going on to say the FAA receives more than 100 reports a month.

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According to the FAA, drones can only be 400 feet above the ground, and you cannot fly in controlled airspace, typically around airports.

The agency has a strict policy against operating drones near airplanes, helicopter, and airports, and said doing so is both dangerous and illegal.

According to FAA reports, over the course of three months there were 12 drone sightings in D.C., ten in Virginia, and eight in Maryland.

"The agency wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is dangerous and illegal," the FAA website states. "Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time."

VSI Aerial owner Geoff Green said that it’s still dangerous when people fly into unrestricted zones. 

Green, a former Marine pilot, started his company VSI Aerial in 2015. Since then he's flown in DC, with proper authorization, to do work for the Mayor's office and multiple other cinematic projects.

In D.C. there is a 15-mile "no drone zone" around Reagan National Airport.

If you do want to fly inside that zone, like Green does, he said he has to get clearance from multiple agencies, as you would to operate a manned helicopter.

"Every agency in D.C. knows when we’re here," Green said. "Secret Service, Park Police, Metro PD, Capital Police, DCA all know the day before. TSA knows, so everyone knows when we operate."

But Green said people can still figure out how to fly illegally and fly within the restricted zone. He said those people would have to not have a geo-fence, which blocks a drone from flying in a "no drone zone."

"There are drones, racing drones, RC planes ... even some homemade quadcopters that people can fly anywhere because they’re not geo-fenced," Green said.

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Green does have authorizations when he flies in the District and said that authorization time is limited.

"For our commercial drones we have to get unlocked licenses, and to get the geo-zone unlocked we have to provide all our paperwork," he said. "We only have them unlocked for the time of the authorization and then they lock back up."

The FAA said unauthorized drone operators could be subject to stiff fines, criminal charges or possible jail time.

Those reports also show that in some cases, drones are flying thousands of feet higher than they should be. One pilot was reportedly seen flying a drone at 8,500 feet.

According to Green, it doesn’t make sense for drones to go that high.

"The biggest concerns would be wind, because as you get higher, the winds get stronger and my concern would be control," Green said.

For pilots like Rosenthal, he worries what a crash with a drone would do.

"Maybe the drone comes in and hits your head if it cracks the windshield, or it can hit the wing and cause a lot of damage," Rosenthal said.

In the agency’s reports, local law enforcement is made aware and the reports show often times the department will seek out the drone pilot.

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