March 30, 2016

Whitehouse Hosts Roundtable on Drone, Laser Interference with Aircraft

Senator’s Legislation Would Create a New Federal Offense Targeting Those Who Endanger Aircraft Passengers, Crews

Warwick, RI – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today hosted a roundtable discussion on the growing threat that laser pointers and drones pose to aviation.

“Flying has never been safer,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “But new threats to aviation safety are emerging. Pilots are reporting a big increase in the number of incidents of laser pointers being aimed at cockpits and drones flying dangerously close to aircraft.  I led the charge in Congress to pass a law protecting our pilots from laser pointers.  Now it is time for Congress to pass my Drone Operator Safety Act, which would create new penalties for drone operators who recklessly endanger aircraft.”

Congressman Jim Langevin, state officials, representatives of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, executives from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, pilots, and other stakeholders participated in the conversation at T.F. Green Airport.

“While affordable recreational drone operation is an exciting technological development, we must figure out a way to resolve the serious risks to airplanes that occupy the same airspace,” said Congressman Langevin.  “We want drone operators to be able to enjoy their hobby, while still respecting the safety issues and privacy concerns that come with being a responsible drone pilot.  Our world is ever changing, and the old rules for civil aviation need adjustment for the improvements in technology we have today.  I look forward to continuing to work on this issue in Congress, and I applaud Senator Whitehouse for his leadership.”

The dramatic increase in the number of drones in the skies presents new challenges for aviation safety.  Pilots reported more than 1,200 drone sightings to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2015, an increase of over 500 percent from the previous year.  More than 400,000 drones have been registered with the FAA since the agency launched its Unmanned Aircraft System registry in December 2015.

“This is a continuing conversation on clarifying the rules, regulations and laws promulgating the proper use of drone technology,” said Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell.  “I commend Senator Whitehouse for his leadership on the issue of safety in our airspace and his effort to hold those who deviate from the rules accountable.”  

To help keep aircraft crews and passengers safe in the face of new threats, Senator Whitehouse recently introduced the Drone Operator Safety Act, which would make it a federal offense to use a drone to disrupt the operation of a manned aircraft.  While the FAA has the authority to levy civil penalties on individuals operating drones in a manner that puts people and property at risk, there currently is no criminal provision that directly addresses the unsafe operation of drones.

“Since safety is the primary focus at Green Airport, we work in concert with our Federal and State partners to address potential issues that could impact safe travel for all who fly to and from Green Airport and our five general aviation airports,” said Peter Frazier, Interim President and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.  “We thank Senator Whitehouse for his role in spearheading this important legislation and bringing these critical issues to the table for discussion.”

The Drone Operator Safety Act follows legislation Senator Whitehouse introduced in 2011 that made endangering aircraft passengers by aiming a laser pointer at an airplane cockpit a criminal offense.  That bill was signed into law and is now used by the Department of Justice to prosecute laser pointer incidents around the country.


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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921