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FAA report details drones flying near planes in Minnesota

ST. PAUL — As drones become more popular among businesses and hobbyists, reports of illegal drone use near airports have increased.

The Federal Aviation Administration receives more than 100 reports nationwide of drone sightings near airports per month. The number of reports of drone sightings jumped from 25 nationwide in January 2015 to 94 in January 2016.

Air traffic control and pilots flying in Minnesota reported nine incidents of drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, flying near airports over a roughly 15-month period, according to data collected by the FAA. None of the nine — four in Eden Prairie, three in St. Paul and two in Minneapolis — collided with planes.

"(A drone) could easily take out the engine of the plane, so it's important that drone operators take (rules and guidelines) seriously," said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Of the 519 drone incident reports the FAA received between Aug. 21, 2015, and Jan. 31, 2016, 36 percent were considered close encounters, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Hogan said the few sightings in Minnesota haven't made a large impact at MAC's seven airports.

"We haven't had any real issues with it," he said. "There's nothing extraordinary that we've had to do as the result of the drones."

Minnesota requires drones to be registered with Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Aeronautics unless they are being used recreationally. All drone operators need to register their drones with the FAA.

Drone users are required to contact airport management if they're flying within five miles of an airport, said Rick Braunig, manager of aviation safety and enforcement for MnDOT's aeronautics office. He said drone users are rarely denied permission.

With more than 300 airports in the state, including hospital heliports and private runways, drone users might need to ask for permission more than they expect, Braunig said. Unauthorized users near airports could face fines or criminal charges.

As of Aug. 29, commercial drone operators are required to pass a written exam from the FAA to be licensed. The exam is easy for pilots but can be tricky for the average drone user, said Joel Roggenkamp, who runs the Twin Cities Drone School, which helps people prep for the exam.

While the exam is required only for commercial drone users, the regulations it covers apply to all drone users.

"The hobbyists don't always know the rules about the airspace," Roggenkamp said, adding that the FAA has resources, such as its "Know Before You Fly" program, that make it easier to navigate airspace rules and laws.

Drone use is also restricted during wildfires and near stadiums and sporting events.

Braunig said he expects drone use to continue to flourish as the technology becomes more accessible and easier to use.

"People are thinking of great uses for them all the time, and we recognize that drones can be really wonderful tools ... but we just want to make sure they're operating safely," he said.

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