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The mystery of the drone flying above New York City
After an Alitalia pilot has a frightening encounter with a UFO near JFK airport, there are more questions than answers
The drone spotted near JFK airport was reportedly similar to this one produced by Aeryon Labs Inc.
The drone spotted near JFK airport was reportedly similar to this one produced by Aeryon Labs Inc. YouTube
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n Monday, the Obama administration told Congress that it's possible "to imagine an extraordinary circumstance" — like a 9/11-level attack — in which it would deploy an aerial drone to kill an American on U.S. soil. And quite coincidentally, that same day, the Federal Aviation Administration said a drone had been spotted in the airspace near Queens and Brooklyn. An Alitalia pilot landing at JFK airport had this jarring conversation with an air-traffic controller:

JFK controller: Uh, what did you see?
Alitalia pilot: We saw a drone, a drone aircraft.
JFK controller: What altitude did you see that aircraft?
Alitalia pilot: About 1,500 feet.

You can listen to the raw audio below, but here are the basic details: The airplane was about three miles from JFK runway 31R when the pilot saw a black, unmanned aircraft with four propellers, about 3 feet wide. The drone was reportedly a frightening 200 feet away from the plane, some 1,750 feet in the air.

What was this drone doing near JFK, and who was controlling it? The FAA wants to know, and so does the FBI. "The FBI is asking anyone with information about the unmanned aircraft or the operator to contact us," Special Agent John Giacalone said in a statement. "Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew."

Without a better description, "it's impossible to tell if this might be some sort of heavy-duty unmanned aerial vehicle, or a hobbyist remote-controlled gadget," says Adrian Chen at Gawker. But there are some clues: The NYPD doesn't fly drones — yet — and the description, if accurate, sounds more like a hobbyist quadrocopter. Plus, JFK is just a few miles from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, "a favorite spot for remote-controlled-plane enthusiasts." Maybe one of those hobbyists decided to flout the FAA's rule that remote-controlled aircraft stay under 400 feet and stay in sight of the operator, who has to notify air traffic controllers if the aircraft will fly within three miles of an airport.

"Whether it was a hobbyist breaking the Federal Aviation Administration’s 400-foot-altitude rule or a real spy vessel from the Evil Empire is unknown," says David Kravets at Wired. "Either way, there's a UFO out there and it came within 200 feet of the plane." That's frightening, and it's going to become more common after a new law, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, takes effect. Under that law, "the FAA has a September 2015 deadline to open up U.S. skies to commercial and civil drones," says Ryan Gallagher at Slate.

While the word drone conjures up images of large military-style Predators or Reapers, in this case the aircraft seems to have been more in line with a radio-controlled plane used for recreational purposes. A similar incident was reported to have occurred in Denver last year, when a "mystery object" suspected of being a model aircraft nearly caused a collision at some 8,000 feet.... As drone technology becomes more affordable for private citizens to purchase, it follows that the risks will heighten, as the incidents in New York and Denver perhaps demonstrate. [Slate]

The near miss was worrisome, but can we stop calling the aircraft a "drone"? says Adam Clark Estes at Vice. "The difference in wording seems slight, but the connotation is significant." People don't freak out over "a hobbyist whose remote-controlled aircraft flew too high," but the FBI asking about a rogue "drone" — to its credit, it didn't, opting for the more accurate "unnamed aircraft" — is a whole other matter, needlessly conjuring up the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen.

From a 30,000-foot point of view, Tuesday morning's scare in the air is just the latest sign that the drone era has arrived and will be taking over our lives in increasingly local ways.... As far as anybody knows, the lone quadrocopter (or whatever it was) in Brooklyn was not a domestic strike. It was probably not a military aircraft. All signs point to a daring hobbyist having a fun afternoon. More broadly speaking, all signs point to America hearing a lot more reports like this as the hobby grows. [Vice]

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