Commercial drones a serious safety concern?

When most Americans think of drones, they likely envision the high-tech flying machines used by the military, among the most lethal weapons in Uncle Sam's arsenal.

But what many don't realize, the very same technology giving rise to military drones is now being miniaturized and used commercially here at home.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 30,000 drones will take to the air in the U.S. within the next few years. The agency fears without proper oversight, the unregulated use of drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles – will become a recipe for disaster.

In March, 2013, that terrifying vision nearly came true, when the pilot of an Alitalia jetliner came within 200 feet of a drone while on approach to JFK Airport.

According to the FBI, the drone, described as a small helicopter, was flying at an altitude of 1750 feet over a densely populated neighborhood. A mid-air collision could have been calamitous. The drone's operator as never been found.

It's that type of scenario which has retired Continental Airline pilot Tom Jeffries deeply concerned.

He currently runs his own flight school and says he is genuinely worried that the next time he's in the cockpit, a miniature drone could be hidden in the clouds.

"They're not going to appear on radar," Jeffries said. "You're never going to see them until they hit something. When they suck one of those drones into the engine of an airplane, then it'll get everybody's attention."

Commercial drones are small. And while they look like toys, operating one is anything but child's play.

They are radio-controlled aircraft that can fly incredible distances. Many can carry cameras, and many are for hire.

The only problem is the FAA doesn't permit any commercial drone use -- a fact that escapes many operators and those who hire them.

According to FAA guidelines, the government "excludes the use of drones by persons or companies for business uses."  

Even hobbyists must adhere to basic flight guidelines. They can't fly any higher than 400 feet and must operate a least three miles from commercial airports.      

ABC15 obtained FAA reports showing the feds are trying to crack down on illegal drone use, but struggling with the task.

Their records show at least 23 investigations have been launched in recent years, but most the of the illegal drone operators have never been found. T

en of those who were tracked down only received official warnings, although one operator was fined $10,000 for taking commercial photographs above the University of Virginia. Not only was the operator unlicensed, the FAA says his drone was seen making "dangerous maneuvers near bystanders."   

The FAA documents also reveal five disturbing incidents where drones were spotted flying dangerously close to manned aircraft.

In 2012, a Virginia pilot reported seeing a drone just 100 feet from his wing, while an air traffic controller in Rhode Island complained of another drone flying in airport airspace. In September 2011, a pilot in Houston radioed a report of a drone flying perilously close to an airport near Interstate 10 outside downtown.  

Congress has ordered the FAA to establish regulations for commercial drone use by 2015, but many states, including Arizona, are working to pass their own regulations.

Arizona State Representative Jeff Dial tried to draft his own guidelines earlier this year.

While Dial was specifically targeting drone use by law enforcement agencies, he's also worried about unregulated private and commercial drone use.

In a recent interview Dial told ABC15, "With them being used in so many ways, we can have them flying into other aircraft out there. We can have these crashing into people's backyards and I don't think we want that.".

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