A recent article posted on AV web by Paul Bertorelli proposed the following scenario and asked the following question, “You’re in an airport boarding lounge and the gate agent announces your flight has been delayed because a drone was sighted near the airport. In the improbably fantastical world I’ve created for this blog, the agent asks for a vote: Go or stay on the ground? How do you vote? How do the other passengers vote?”
In the past month, several major airports have been brought to their knees, stopping all operations due to ‘supposed’ drone sightings.
I live in Atlanta. FAA Air Traffic Controllers in my area safely handled more than 1,500 general aviation flights in the 36 hours surrounding NFL’s Big Game. February 4th was the busiest day for the Atlanta TRACON in more than a decade, handling more than 4,000 total flights. During most of this time, we had a 30-mile TFR to isolate the Mercedes Benz stadium for the game. My hat is off to these fine controllers who each day calmly direct the professionals flying into, out of and around my city. I am not quite sure what the stadium needed to be isolated from, what, if any, threats occurred, or why the TFR needed to be a 30-mile radius protected by the military, but I know it affected the little grass airstrip where I live on the outer edge of the 30-mile radius. We were shut down from our afternoon sunset flights around the neighborhood and up to the lake. I was however, happy to do my part.
Days before the TFR went into place the FBI was in Atlanta and the media was obsessing over drones being flown in the vicinity of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. According to news reports, the FBI seized, what I understand was at least 6 toy personal drones. Now the stadium sits in the middle of the city, in class G airspace up to 700 ft where it then turns into class E and then higher to B. At the exact time some drones were being confiscated, I know of a major news network that was flying in the vicinity of the same stadium, gathering footage for the afternoon news. This news team of two, a pilot and a camera operator, both Part 107 pilots, were approached and questioned by the FBI. In a very friendly and professional manner, it was determined, after some education on the airspace rules from the drone pilots, that there were no violations and they were free to continue their flights. This made me wonder why the others were being confiscated?
Now about those airport sightings. To my knowledge, there were never any confirmed sightings of any drones at Gatwick, or in NY weeks later. Even the police recently said that the sightings were probably their own drone looking for the first drone. But let’s assume for a second that there was indeed a small drone spotted over a major airport. What are the probabilities of an accident? That is to say a real impact with a passenger or other type of plane? Mercatus did a report using the only real data that is available to us, wildlife. The report used data collected over the last 25 years and estimated that although aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths.
Another fun way to look at a possible collision scenario is from model aircraft history. Owning a remote-controlled hobby shop I have attended many remote control gatherings over my 30-year history. During some of these events, we have a real live combat contest. Yes, we try our best to hit each other. These are generally aircraft that we have made of foam and covered in packing tape with electric motors. They will fly for 15-20 min at speeds of upward of 30-60 MPH and do their darn best to run into each other in a kind of last-man-standing or whoever gets the most hits and lives wins the event.
At these events, the contest director will announce an imaginary airspace cube, generally 200 feet long, 200 feet wide and around 150 feet tall. We all stand in a line along the 200 ft box and launch at the same time. We have had as many as 50-60 pilots take part in these events and to be honest, even while flying in that small cube of airspace, a true beehive of activity with 60 other aircrafts trying our best to hit each other, in many cases everyone’s batteries die in the 15-20 minute contest, without any collisions, and this is with us trying to hit one another.
Mr. Bertorelli’s article is good and I support his observations (click here to read). I am blessed to be able to fly all types of aircraft and it is hard to put an actual number to the risk of a collision with something else in the air, but while flying, I am always scanning the sky. Everything is so theoretical right now, with bird strikes from the above report being the only real data we have.
But what to do about all of these drones swarming over major airports? We have to look at and consider, are these drone sightings real sightings? In one report the commercial airliner was landing, at night and was at roughly 3500 ft, when the pilot reported a drone very close to them. One of my companies sells consumer and commercial UAVs, lots of them. But none of them would even be able to start their motors near one of these airports as they all have software to prevent it and are in fact geofenced with the aircraft’s software knowing the airspace is restricted and not allowing the aircraft to even spin the motors.
Now, with some work with the drone manufacturer, this geofence an be unlocked for 48 hours, but you have to have the proper credentials to get approval to do this. The folks I know with proper credentials know better than to interfere with aircraft. But assuming that you get the Geo fence unlocked, the aircraft will still not fly 3500 ft high, as it is locked at the factory at no more than 400 ft. Even if that is turned off, it will not fly above 1000 ft or so without again having the proper credentials and working with the factory to unlock it for a short time. So in this reported sighting, at night, at over 3000 feet with that passenger aircraft in a landing configuration, traveling at about 150 mph in a landing configuration I find it hard to believe that you could spot a drone that is no more 15 to 18 inches square. The more probable scenario, in my opinion, is a plastic trash bag caught in a thermal reflecting off the landing lights for a split second.
Then again, are we dealing with other reasons for these sightings? Could it be UFOs or just be fake news to keep drone awareness up so airports can get more public funding for new, expensive and highly experimental drone deterrent equipment? Or is this some nefarious government attempt to keep the drone population beat down and out of the air altogether? I’m not sure, so I am going with the UFOs. Hey, you never know right?
So what if a collision does happen? Let’s take a second and look at the possible collision envelopes that could happen between drone and aircraft, and what the damage could be to a passenger aircraft.
Could A Drone Really Cause An Aircraft To Crash?
Again, I would look to the only real data we have, bird strikes, and in the report, FAA, Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990-2015, it is stated, “The number of strikes annually reported to the FAA has increased 7.4-fold from 1,851 in 1990 to a record 13,668 in 2014. The 2014 total was an increase of 2,267 strikes (20 percent) compared to the 11,401 strikes reported in 2013. For 1990–2014, 156,114 strikes were reported. Birds were involved in 96.9 percent of the reported strikes, terrestrial mammals in 2.2 percent, bats in 0.8 percent and reptiles in 0.1 percent.”
I could not find any reporting that showed any of the over 156,000 strikes ended in an aircraft being caused to crash. I have actually been in a bird strike situation and I know a few of the pilots that have also had strikes have had some underpants cleaning to do after the incident but it did not bring down the aircraft.
I am blessed to be a private pilot that lives on a little grass strip. I get to fly sailplanes, Ultralights, and Hang Gliders. I have flown in thermals side-by-side with many types of large birds of prey, and once I passed a plastic bag at over 8000 ft. I would never want to drop my guard to the possibility that a collision with an object in the air could happen. It could happen, I repeat it can happen. So what should we do?
Look up in the sky, there is lots of room there, but as I tell my students, aircraft are moving at fast speeds, so if it is clear now it could be on you in just a few seconds. I think that we need to ramp up the awareness and education to the general population that has purchased their drone from the local big box or even the local 7/11. This is desperately needed, but we need to tell the truth and not use fake news or hysteria to scare the public if that is really what is going on.
My team works each and every day to educate our clients on the responsibilities that they have when operating their aircraft. Seven years ago we started a flight school teaching prospective UAV pilots how to fly properly. We teach
Even if you are only going to fly for recreational purposes, you should still learn the rules of the air. Attend our online 107 training program, or our 1 and 2-day flight training events to get up to speed on what is happening above your head in the national airspace.
So back to the very first question that was asked by Mr. Bertorelli. when the gate agent asks for the imaginary vote, my response would be, “kick the tires and light the fires and I would encourage the rest of the passengers to vote similarly.”
Always remember that being a pilot, and the practice of aviation, in general, is a privilege and should always be taken seriously. For those of you reading this, I welcome you to this special club.
Please fly safe!