2 Investigates: FAA's list of drone incidents reveals dramatic increase

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KTVU) -- The number of incidents involving drones has increased exponentially across the country and here in the Bay Area, according to data compiled in the Federal Aviation Administration’s national drone database obtained by 2 Investigates. 

The numbers reveal that sightings, near misses with planes, and other issues have dramatically grown. But there still exists widespread confusion about how drone activity is being regulated and what federal authorities are doing to keep the public safe.

“A disaster waiting to happen”

It’s been five months since he experienced a serious mid-flight scare, but during every flight check and every take off from Livermore Airport, pilot Robert Franklin still thinks about that day.

“I think about that every time I climb in a plane now, “ Franklin said.
 
“It’s in your mind right now?” KTVU investigative reporter Ross Palombo asked just before the two were taking off.

“Yep… yes,” Franklin said, while sweating behind the throttle.
 
The incident Franklin referred to happened on April 27.  He was flying at 4,800 feet, when something hit his Cessna.
 
“Then there’s a bump,” Franklin explained, saying that he could feel the whole plane shake.
 
It wasn’t until he was safely back on the ground that he saw the damage: scratches on the back of the propeller and scratches on the plane’s body.
 
“We think it’s a drone,” Franklin said. “I’m very concerned about it. It’s could’ve been a catastrophic event.”

“You could be dead?” Palombo asked.

“Yes, I’m very clear about that.”

Inconclusive evidence?
 
The FAA listed that incident in its national drone database, which was obtained and analyzed by 2 Investigates. In the last six months, there have been 660 sightings, near misses, and other reported issues involving drones. California leads the nation with 142 incidents, reflecting a 14-fold increase over the same period last year, according to records. The Bay Area had 38 documented incidents. That’s a nine-fold increase from the year before.
 
READ: FAA Drone Database - Nov. 2014 to Aug. 2015

“I think this is a disaster waiting to happen,” Franklin said.

His drone hit was actually the first reported hit in the entire country.

“There’s a lot of things I wanna be first at,” he said. “This is not one of them.”
 
The FAA says it looked into the documented incident involving Franklin and his plane, but a spokesperson for the agency refused to comment over whether the agency actually launched a full formal investigation. 

“Our conclusion was that we couldn’t reach a conclusion,” FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said. 

However, in its own database, the incident is described as leaving “two gouges... three inches long... deep enough to take off a layer of fiberglass.” The narrative goes to document “evidence of impact... inside two of the three props,” and “no blood... as would have been expected with a bird strike.” 

The National Transportation Safety Board told KTVU that it declined to open an investigation into Franklin’s incident. Spokesperson Eric Weiss said they briefly “spoke with the pilot, checked radar data, and searched for physical evidence.”

But despite the photos, the pilot’s account, and the incident being recorded in the FAA’s drone database, the NTSBdecided not to look into the report any further.  In an email to 2 Investigates, Weiss said there was “nothing to indicate that the airplane was struck by a drone.”
 
After viewing pictures of the damage to Franklin’s plane, Aviation Expert Bruce Milan told KTVU that he was surprised to hear the NTSB did not launch a full investigation into the potential drone strike.

“I think it’s crazy,” he said.  “It probably couldn’t be anything but a drone.”
 
Are they [the NTSB] asleep at the switch?” Paombo asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Milan agreed. “I think they are putting lives in danger. Absolutely.”
 
“My first thought is one of the pilots I know is going to die,” Franklin concluded.

Widespread Confusion
 
As the number of incidents reported to the FAA continues to climb, the confusion, problems, and concerns appear to be soaring sky high. Even with an FAA advisory issued just this month, suggesting that non-commercial drones fly under 400 feet, there is still confusion over exactly what is safe and what is legal.
 
2 Investigates saw the problem first hand while learning to fly a drone in Brisbane. A woman driving by said, “You know that they’re illegal in San Mateo?”  A police officer even drove up and asked what was going on.

“The drones shouldn’t be flying here legally?” Palombo asked.

“I’m just telling you that somebody called and complained about the drone...OK... that’s it,” Officer Sevilla replied.

“But is it illegal?”

“No, I’m not telling you it’s illegal,” said the officer.
 
Drone designer Jason Lam agreed that the widespread confusion among law enforcement, drone operators, pilots, and public all appears to be contributing to the growing problem.

“Everyone’s confused. There’s no guidelines established at this point right now,” Lam said.
 
Designers and engineers like Lam say they want more, clearer guidelines because they understand the risks better than anyone. He’s now supporting Senator Diane Feinstein’s legislation that would require greater regulation of consumer drones, where they fly, how high they go, and what software they could have to prevent collisions. The bill is currently in committee, and still a long way from becoming law.
 
“Are the skies safe right now?” Palombo asked Lam.

“If I’m a pilot I would be a little worried,” he said.  “I believe more incidents are going to happen.”
 
For those who have already seen it happen and have seen those risks fly into reality, there is nothing to do right now but fly in fear.
 
“When you land, do you think ‘I got lucky today’?” Palombo asked Franklin.
 
“It’s more of a numbers game I think,” he said. “Today, I beat the numbers.”
 

INTERACTIVE: Mapping reported drone incidents nationwide

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