Reported drone sightings force Newark airport to halt flights Tuesday night

A drone reportedly came within 30 feet of an aircraft close to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport early Tuesday evening, forcing the airport’s operator to suspend flights for a short period.

Air traffic control audio obtained by ABC News has pilots describing what “looks like a drone” as the aircraft made its final approach. “Missed the drone by about 30 feet off our right wing,” one of the pilots said in the recording.

Speaking on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Greg Martin said that two drones were spotted about 10 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport at an altitude of around 3,500 feet, way above the 400-feet limit stipulated by the FAA.

The airport operator posted a tweet saying drone activity had been spotted “north of the airport” at around 5 p.m. ET, forcing air traffic controllers to suspend landings, though it’s not yet clear if any flights had to be diverted. Departures were also reported to have been temporarily halted.

In an email to Bloomberg, United Airlines said it was “monitoring reports of drone activity, which the FAA is investigating.” It described the suspension of airport activity as “minimal so far,” adding, “We are working closely with the airport and the FAA to return our operations to normal as quickly as possible.”

Tuesday’s incident comes a month after apparent drone sightings forced the closure of one of the U.K.’s busiest airports for around 36 hours. Police are still seeking those behind the rogue drone flights.

Ownership of consumer drones has skyrocketed in the last couple of years, and while the vast majority of owners fly them responsibly, a tiny percentage of miscreants risk giving the hobby a bad name.

The FAA says reports of unmanned aircraft (UAS) sightings from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement have “increased dramatically” over the past two years, and it now receives more than 100 such reports each month.

Protection

The issue highlights the need for better protection for various facilities that ban drone flights. A growing number of companies offer an array of systems that claim to be able to take down rogue drones, with airport operators apparently only now waking up to the fact that serious steps need to be taken to protect the airspace around busy hubs. In the U.K., Heathrow and Gatwick — the country’s two busiest airports — are reported to be investing millions of dollars in “military-grade anti-drone apparatus” to stop rogue machines from flying close to their facilities.

The technology is thought to be similar to the Drone Dome system built by Israeli firm Rafael. The technology gained wider attention in December 2018 when it was reportedly deployed at Gatwick following its 36-hour shutdown.

The Drone Dome has the smarts to track airborne devices within a six-mile radius and jam communications between the drone and the person piloting it. Rafael describes the Drone Dome as an “end-to-end system designed to provide effective airspace defense against hostile drones used by terrorists to perform aerial attacks, collect intelligence, and perform other intimidating activities.”

Digital Trends recently took a look at a range of other systems designed to take down rogue drones.

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