FAA to ramp up drone education, regulation

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a ... drone?

More and more often, large commercial airliners are encountering small, unmanned aircraft flying through the sky, sometimes undetected by the human eye, and often invisible from the cockpit of a large airplane.

According to Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, regulations are in place to prevent drones from interfering with large aircraft -- but education about drone safety and regulation enforcement needs to be improved in order to actually keep airways safe.

"That is certainly a serious concern and it is something that I am concerned about," Huerta told Candy Crowley on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. "That's why we are very focused on education. That's why we're also focused on enforcement. We've enforced hundreds of these cases where we have seen someone operating one of these things carelessly and recklessly and posing the danger to aircraft, and that can't happen."

Since drones have entered the commercial market, the FAA reports pilots have seen up to 25 cases per month of drones flying above the regulated limit of 400 feet, with some flying as high as 2,000 feet in the air. Huerta says the FAA is working to educate people about the dangers of flying drones that high, since enforcement of the small, unmanned aerial vehicles can be difficult.

"(A) big part of what we're doing is educating people," Huerta said. "These are very high performance aircraft, and they are difficult to see and this is one of the big challenges, and so that's why the rules require that people stay away from airports."

"We have been working with the Model Aeronautics Association, with the model community and clubs so we can educate people because these are not your typical pilots that may be flying one of these for the first time and they may be unfamiliar with the rules," he added.

In 2012, the FAA set a September 2015 deadline to lay out a concrete list of rules and regulations for flying commercial drones, many of which are operated from the ground by untrained civilians. The current rules prohibit owners from flying drones higher than 400 feet, near an airport, or out of eyesight. But enforcing those regulations can be difficult, especially in light of the increasing rate of commercial use.

Still, proponents of drone use argue the unmanned aerial vehicles have great potential for both surveillance and commercialism, a balance which Huerta says the FAA is working to achieve.

"Yes, there are proponents of unmanned aircraft and they really see huge potential with this technology and for them, we can't move fast enough," Huerta said. "What they would like to see is free and open use of unmanned aircraft as soon as we can get there."

"On the other side, you have pilots, commercial pilots, general aviation pilots, who are very concerned that these are difficult to see, they don't really have a good understanding of how they interact with other aircraft, and bedrock principle of aviation is a principle called see and avoid. The pilots take action to avoid one another. So it's for that reason that we have a plan for a staged and thoughtful integration of unmanned aircraft where we look at lower risk uses first, and then gradually work to others. "

Of course, the added technology also creates a new avenue for national security concerns, mainly terrorism. In response to that potential threat, Huerta says the FAA will be publishing a "rule-making" that takes into consideration the qualifications of the drone operator, and the certification of the aircraft.

"I can't say what is going to be in it but broadly speaking, what we are looking at are all the questions relating to how we certify the aircraft and what are the qualifications of the operator as well as what uses they can be put to," Huerta said.