(NaturalNews) As drone usage by the federal government, police agencies and - soon - universities and other private entities increase, more Americans are becoming understandably concerned that unmanned aerial vehicles could be utilized to violate privacy provisions outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
A much-less talked about problem; however, is the issue of public safety, and one the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to answer adequately: How much of a problem will the proliferation of drones - mostly smaller UAVs especially - pose to regular air traffic?
Attack of the (small) drones?
This potential for disaster was brought to light recently when a commercial airline pilot approaching JFK International Airport in New York City spotted what he described as an unidentifiable, drone-like aircraft hovering near his plane as he landed.
The New York Post reported that something called the Joint Terror Task Force is now investigating what an Alitalia pilot described as "a black drone" that he said was hovering just 200 feet or so from his aircraft about three miles east of the airport as he made an approach from Brooklyn.
One source told the paper: "He was very clear as to what he saw."
"The unmanned aircraft was described as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers," said an FBI statement.
The Post said the pilot informed investigators the flying object was at an altitude of about 1,800 feet and looked like "a black drone about a meter square, with helicopter rotors on the corners."
The presence of the drone-like object "didn't require the pilot of the jet to take any evasive action, and it didn't interfere with the aircraft," said an unidentified source who spoke with the paper.
Was it just a model airplane hobbyist or terrorist monitoring air traffic lanes?
As a result, the pilot landed safely - but that was this time.
The task force has launched a full-scale investigation, and the Federal Aviation Administration - the agency charged with approving commercial and law enforcement drone applications - is also investigating.
The Post said other sources noted that there was a good chance the drone that was spotted was likely being operated by a model-aircraft enthusiast. Still, the sighting was the first of its kind so close to an aircraft, veteran observers said.
"In all the years I've been with the airport, I can't remember a similar incident," one investigator said. "Whether this is a hobbyist or not, it raises serious concerns."
The Christian-Science Monitor reported that the FAA requires that drones being flown by, for example, law enforcement entities, keep them at 400 feet or below. So chances are good that this drone was not being operated by police.
Who was operating it? And what were they doing operating a drone in a well-established commercial airliner landing approach path?
What kind of casualties would disabling a plane on approach over NYC cause? Could a drone be used to cause such damage?
More drones coming, so get ready
Drone request applications flowing into the FAA have than doubled, from 146 in 2009 to 313 in 2011, the CSM reported. And while most of those have come from law enforcement agencies, as the technology to make smaller, more capable drones increases, the implications for both privacy rights and potential terrorist attacks becomes clear.
Just as it would not take much to re-task a tiny drone for the purposes of spying on ordinary Americans, it would take perhaps just as little an effort for a terrorist to guide one into the path of an approaching airliner, perhaps lodging the small UAV into an engine intake, which would cause an immediate failure and possibly even an in-flight explosion.
Drone technology, unfortunately, is something we cannot un-invent. But it is something we had better figure out how to deal with and apply appropriately.