A model of a drone on display in Foley Square...

A model of a drone on display in Foley Square in New York in October 2014. Credit: Getty Images / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

Not too long ago, the only drones anyone needed to worry about on a final approach to Kennedy Airport were the tireless chatterboxes who might be seated nearby.

No more. Today it's that other kind of drone -- officially known as an unmanned aircraft system -- that has pilots, politicians and Washington worried.

The military has used them for years in places like Afghanistan. But their popularity also has been growing fast among civilians at home -- from hobbyists to private investigators to photographers. Drug dealers sometimes use them for deliveries. Amazon is looking at their possibilities.

The result is a troubling surge of unmanned aircraft within some of the nation's most tightly packed corridors -- such as the airspace around metropolitan New York.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received reports describing 193 drone encounters since the beginning of the year -- including 12 in New York.

How urgent is the situation? Last month alone, three near-miss incidents were reported in airspace around JFK.

In one, a Delta pilot 10 miles out saw a drone flying way too close to his plane's left wing. In another, a drone was spotted within two miles of a heavily used JFK runway. And in another, a Virgin Atlantic pilot headed toward the airport spotted a drone at about 3,000 feet.

"When the Wild West persists unchecked," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), "someone eventually gets hurt."

But if tighter regulations are a must, Washington seems to be moving forward with the speed of a lumbering blimp.

The FAA was supposed to draft regulations by August, but missed that deadline. Among the possibilities: A rule that drone operators must first have a pilot's license and experience flying manned aircraft, a rule restricting drones to daylight flights, and a rule restricting drones to an altitude of 400 feet.

Not surprisingly, a phalanx of industry organizations is pushing back hard against some of these ideas. But Washington needs to tame the Wild West before disaster strikes.


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