Well, hello, little buddy, how did you get way up here?

Didn’t seem to get a lot of play for some reason, but the Newark airport went into a brief ground stop yesterday because of a drone flying at 3500 feet in its approach path (or near enough that one pilot reported missing it by 30 feet).  This more or less on the metaphorical heels of London’s Gatwick Airport being closed for two days back in December (and a military presence in respond to that being withdrawn only a few days ago) because of drones encroaching on its airspace.

It seems to me that if a drone is capable of flying to 3500 feet, it ought to be required to have a transponder and be registered with the FAA. I’ve really never understood the pushback on that sort of thing from drone owners, given that I’m an amateur radio operator and fully accept the fact that I have to have a federal license issued by the FCC (after successfully passing a test, too — three tests, in my case, since I’m an Extra-class licensee) to pursue my Very Expensive Hobby. Private pilots need licenses to fly at that sort of altitude, so I don’t see how drone operators with beefy drones capable of flying way up there get a pass. (And let me make it clear that I’m not calling for the little toy drones that will barely get up to a hundred feet to require transponders and registration.)

That said, I’m not naive — just as I fully understand that unlicensed jerks are able to buy amateur radio equipment and encroach on the licensed Amateur bands, I fully understand that someone acting with malice aforethought would simply disable their drone’s transponder, but drones without transponders would be subject to shootdown if they got into restricted airspace. (So would drones with transponders, but at least they could, notionally, be traced back to a federal licensee.) Maybe commercial aircraft ought to have laser turrets mounted that could automatically target drones that are violating their airspace and take them out. (Nah, I’m dreaming now. Think of the people on the ground.)

And I’m also all for freedom and telling the government to go hang, but all it will take is one drone taking out a fully-laden passenger aircraft when it is most vulnerable (takeoff or landing), and that will be the end of anyone flying drones legally in the US other than law enforcement and the military, and maybe certain heavily-restricted corporations with special usage licenses. You know this in your hearts, drone owners.  The thing about a drone that makes it attractive to a certain segment of the population (otherwise known as “terrorists”) is that you don’t even need to attach a bomb to it — just ramming it into a wing will cause a lot of damage all by itself:

“It punctures a hole right through the leading edge,” Poormon says. The drone went deep into the wing, hitting and denting a spar, a vital structural element. “All the weight of the aircraft is suspended on the spars,” Poormon says. “If you damage the spar enough on that side, you would not, um, survive. The aircraft would crash.”

In the present case, hopefully the dumbass who was flying the drone will be stupid enough to post flight video somewhere. Equally hopefully it was just a dumbass flying a private drone for kicks and giggles, and not a terrorist flying a drone with malice aforethought. In either case the authorities had better be taking this shit seriously.

Edit to add:  I have a friend who has a fairly sophisticated drone who says “It was a UFO, pilots report UFOs as drones so the tower will believe them.”  He apparently meant this in all seriousness, as he also said that to get a drone to 3500 feet would probably expend the battery and recovery would have to be by parachute.  The only reason I would argue the latter point is because the drones that were apparently sighted at Gatwick were said to be “industrial” drones, and I suspect such drones aren’t just your uncle’s quadcopter.  (See any number of drone-shot videos of radio/TV tower climbers, for instance.)  My friend’s drone is software-limited to 400 feet (although he acknowledges the software could be hacked to overcome that) and he says it continuously updates its database of no-fly zones and won’t penetrate those zones.  Of course he didn’t note that the no-fly zone database could also be hacked, but I will charitably accept that he knows that and just didn’t write it.

I’d also make the point that the operator of a drone flown to 3500 feet with the intent to crash into an aircraft doesn’t need to worry about how his drone is going to get back to the ground.  And that you don’t have to be at 3500 feet to take out a landing or ascending jet.  In fact, I’d think being way up there would limit the ability to acquire your target; a plane has a lot more options at that level than it would at, say, a couple hundred feet and locked in on final approach.

The plain fact is, I dunno.  I just think it’s ridiculous not to license and register drones that can fly any higher than what might be considered “hobbyist” altitudes, and to be honest, I think any drone outside of the strictly “toy” class ought to be licensed and registered.