WASHINGTON - Santa Claus may travel on a reindeer-powered sleigh, but he's expected to deliver a ton of high-flying drones this week to teenagers and other amateur aviators, which is making for an anxious yuletide season at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
On Monday, the FAA and the drone industry kicked off a public awareness campaign to urge novice drone operators to pay attention to safety and not do dumb things like fly too close to passenger planes, buzz crowds of bystanders on the ground, or get drunk while flying that new remote control helicopter.
While such advice may sound like basic common sense, FAA officials have been grappling recently with a hair-raising number of incidents in which rogue drones have nearly collided with commercial airliners and other aircraft. And they're worried that the growing popularity and affordability of small consumer drones this Christmas could exacerbate the problem.
"This is an issue of growing concern," Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator, told reporters. "This newer and more powerful technology is affordable to more people, yet many are not familiar with the rules of flying."
The campaign is dubbed "Know Before You Fly" and includes videos instructing people how to "stay off the naughty list" when playing with their new gifts. Among the basics: Don't fly drones above 400 feet, within five miles of an airport or near a stadium.
Although Congress has ordered the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace, the agency has moved slowly to impose a permanent set of standards and regulations to ensure drone safety. Temporary guidelines are in place but are often ignored by drone enthusiasts or businesses that chafe at the FAA's restrictions.
The FAA organized the campaign along with members of the drone industry, which sees huge commercial potential in selling remotely controlled aircraft but is also worried that a midair drone disaster could severely undercut the nascent business. Partnering with the FAA in the educational campaign are the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Small UAV Coalition.
Until recently, the drone industry has been generally reluctant to impose its own limitations or rules, such as pre-loaded software that would prevent drones flying above a certain altitude. Manufacturers and model-aircraft users have also been opposed to requiring recreational drone owners to obtain a special pilot license or a minimum amount of training before they can fly.
Some drone industry members have urged the FAA to crack down on rogue drone operators. But the small aircraft can be very difficult to catch or trace unless they are involved in a crash.
FAA officials have said they prefer an educational approach to a punitive one. Although the FAA has the authority to impose fines on rogue drone pilots, it has done so in only five cases nationwide.