Industry association AUVSI has cautioned against drawing conclusions from a reported near collision between a US commercial airliner and an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) before all the facts in the case are known.
Additionally, the group stresses that the near miss highlights the pressing need for the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to finalise long-awaited regulations covering unmanned air systems (UAS) in national airspace.
Jim Williams, head of the FAA's UAS office, told an 8 May San Francisco conference that on 22 March a regional jet nearly collided with a UAV at an altitude of about 2,300ft near Tallahassee, Florida.
The pilot of the aircraft, a Bombardier CRJ200 operated under the US Airways brand, said the UAV was so close that he was sure the two aircraft collided, according to reports.
"The risk for a small UAS to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real," says Williams. "We all know that the Miracle on the Hudson aircraft was brought down by geese that went through the engines," he says, referring to the ditching of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River near New York City in 2009. "Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine. The results could be catastrophic."
But AUVSI cautions that very little is known about the incident and it is unaware of any official government reports about the event.
The remote-controlled aircraft and its operator were never found and it appears that no-one other than the pilot witnessed the incident, it says.
AUVSI adds that, if the aircraft were remotely piloted, it was likely operated by a recreational user or a hobbyist not the civilian or commercial operators it represents.
Nonetheless, it remains concerned about dangers posed by such incidents and is begging the FAA to finalise rules covering small UAVS.
"If someone operated anything inappropriately, then they should be held accountable," says Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of AUVSI.
AUVSI is particularly concerned that "the technology is advancing faster than the FAAs regulatory process" is progressing. "People are flying they are not waiting around for the FAA," it says. "That's why the agency must immediately begin implementing rules without further delay."
Industry members have been critical of the FAA for the slow pace of its rulemaking, noting that the agency has been working on the regulations for years.
The FAA now says its proposed small UAV rule will be released sometime this year, followed by a period of public consultation.