Twice as many drone sightings were reported to authorities on Long Island than previously thought, revealing local reports skyrocketed in a fivefold increase since last year, new Federal Aviation Administration data shows.
A half dozen reports of drones last year on LI quintupled to 34 for the first eight months of this year, bringing to at least 40 the number of increasingly popular radio-controlled unmanned aircraft reported by pilots, air traffic controllers and citizens in Nassau and Suffolk counties in the past two years, the Press has found. The Press reported last month that at least 20 such cases in LI skies had been reported to the FAA and local police since 2013.
“Because pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, the FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” the FAA said last month in a statement when it released a list of 764 sighting reports from Nov. 13, 2014 to Aug. 20. “Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”
The local increase in drone sighting reports suggests that LI is outpacing the estimated nearly threefold national increase in sightings of drones and other suspected unmanned aerial system (UAS) reported to the FAA since last year.
The new data comes as Suffolk lawmakers recently passed drone regulations. Nassau lawmakers are discussing a similar proposal, as are the towns of Huntington and Hempstead, plus the Village of Saltaire on Fire Island, where statistics show a third of Suffolk’s drone sightings were reported on the barrier island south of LI. The FAA is also drafting national drone rules expected to be released next year.
Four drone sightings were reported last year over Nassau while 13 were reported there Jan. 1 through Aug. 20 of this year, according to Nassau police and the FAA. In Suffolk, two drone sightings last year rose to 21 through last month, according to stats compiled by the Press from the FAA, Suffolk police, the Ocean Beach village police on FI and East Hampton Town Police. The other four East End town police departments either didn’t receive any drone reports, don’t track such incidents, or didn’t return calls for comment.
Some said the data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, an Indiana-based hobby aircraft group, released a report this week critical of the FAA’s data, arguing that the agency overstated the number of near misses that planes have had with drones, included drones that appear to have been flying within the permissible 400-foot altitude and also included non-drones sightings that may have been balloons, birds or other airborne items.
“The FAA fueled inaccurate and sensational headlines claiming that all drone reports involve ‘close calls,’ which even a casual review of the FAA’s data shows is inaccurate,” AMA said Monday in its report, A Closer Look at the FAA’s Drone Data. “In the absence of any operator identification, and given the heightened interest in commercial applications, it is inappropriate to assume, or to report, that a drone was operated by a ‘hobbyist.’”
Although none of the newly released drone sightings over LI indicate a close call, 16 were well above the 400-foot ceiling set by the FAA and four were within a five-mile radius of an airport, which is also a violation of federal rules. Two of those cases were both above the 400-foot limit and within three miles of an airport. But one was of a model airplane, not a drone.
Nassau police had said last month that they received nine reports of drones between April 28, 2014 and Aug. 2 of this year, but the new FAA data indicated that the agency had been notified at least three additional times during that time span than the police statistics showed. They include a JetBlue pilot spotting a drone two miles southeast of John F. Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 19, 2014, another JetBlue pilot eyeing a drone five miles southeast of JFK on Jan. 30 and the pilot of a single-engine Cirrus SR22 reporting a drone passing 300 feet below the aircraft while flying at 2,000 feet three miles west of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale on May 23, records show.
A Nassau police spokesman confirmed that they received those reports, but could not say why they were not included in their tally. He added that there have been no additional drone sightings reported since last month.
In addition, the Press found three other reported sightings in the FAA data that appear to have occurred over Nassau but Nassau police don’t appear to have been notified. They include a JetBlue pilot spotting a UAS at 1,800 feet, three miles southeast of JFK at 11:40 a.m. June 29, a helicopter pilot seeing a white drone 100 feet above the aircraft while flying at 500 feet eastbound along the South Shore three miles south of JFK at 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, and another JetBlue pilot encountering a drone between 500 and 800 feet while flying eastbound along the beach after departing from JFK at 5:20 p.m. Aug. 7, records show.
Suffolk police have said they don’t keep drone sighting stats, but the Press independently found four incidents this summer between June 30 and Aug. 27, all on Fire Island, two of which were over U.S. Coast Guard Station Fire Island at Robert Moses State Park. The FAA data shows Suffolk police were notified of drone sightings 10 times between Feb. 22 and Aug. 19 of this year.
Suffolk police didn’t appear to be notified of an 11th sighting listed in the FAA data in which a citizen reported a dark-color, four-propeller UAS flying at 400 feet near Sunrise Highway about two miles southwest of Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma shortly after 7 p.m. July 24.
The 10 drone sightings in which the FAA said Suffolk police were notified include:
Feb. 22, 2015: Pilots for different jetliners reported a UAS—one at 8,000 feet, the other at 6,000 feet—five miles south of MacArthur Airport shortly before 4 p.m.
Feb. 24, 2015: A single-engine Piper PA46 pilot reported a black-and-silver drone hovering at 5,000 feet five miles north of the Calverton Executive Airpark at 9:35 a.m.
Feb. 25, 2015: A single-engine Piper PA28 pilot reported UAS at 600 feet two miles south of MacArthur Airport 1:58 p.m.
April 21, 2015: A JFK-bound Delta jetliner pilot reported a cylindrical gray-and-white, 3-foot-wide UAS with a hole in the middle that passed “a wingspan away” from the left side of the jet at 10,000 feet in the vicinity of Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach at 11:30 p.m.
May 24, 2015: A JFK-bound Delta jetliner pilot reported a drone at 7,000 feet eight miles southwest of MacArthur Airport at 2:15 p.m.
June 10, 2015: A JFK-bound Delta jetliner pilot reported spotting a white, four-engine drone flying at 1,800 feet over Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island at 2:57 p.m.
June 26, 2015: An experimental aircraft pilot reported spotting a dark-colored quadcopter UAS come within 500 feet of the aircraft while flying at 3,000 feet 20 miles southeast of JFK at 8 p.m.
July 4, 2015: A Delta jetliner pilot reported spotting a yellow UAS fly 500 feet below the aircraft while flying at 4,000 feet about 23 miles east of JFK at 10:55 a.m.
Aug. 5, 2015: A single-engine Piper PA28 pilot reported a remote-controlled model airplane with a 5-foot wingspan flying at 1,500 feet one mile south of Republic Airport at 8:25 p.m.
Aug. 9, 2015: A single-engine Cessna pilot reported spotting a UAS flying at 2,500 feet five miles southwest of East Hampton Airport at 4:40 p.m.