Stop the drone panic – pilots should take their own advice

For an industry that’s usually obsessed with “risk management,” aviation sure isn’t using much of it when it comes to drones. The constant drumbeat of stories about close encounters between airplanes and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can be described as nothing short of a panic, with pilots and non-pilots alike convinced that a drone disaster is looming. Flying Magazine has chronicled the drones disrupting wildfire aircraft operations in California and AOPA has written about about “chillingly dangerous” encounters with unmanned aircraft. That’s not to mention the non-aviation media, which is positively hyperventilating.

Piper wing
Was it a drone or is that just the flavor of the month?

And yet, I am unable to find a single verified story of a drone colliding with an aircraft in the US. There is one event that happened in Afghanistan in 2011, and there was a story about a Piper that might have hit a quadcopter over Illinois recently – but it turned out to be a bird.

This is the latest example of the “safety fad” problem in aviation, a type of industry-wide ADHD. For a few years in the mid-2000s, runway incursions were going to kill us all. Reports of these events skyrocketed almost overnight, and serious FAA presentations warned of huge fatalities if something didn’t change. Millions were spent on technology and training.

But then runway incursions seemed to fade, and bird strikes were the next big problem. As the FAA reports, “The overall number of reported strikes for all aircraft and airport types has increased 6.2 fold, from 1,851 in 1990 to a record 11,399 in 2013.” Does anyone really think the number of birds increased 600% in 20 years?

The problem is clear: when we look for something we usually find it, even when it isn’t there. A number of supposedly close encounters with drones sound awfully vague, and could easily be balloons or birds. Even some situations that did involve drones probably weren’t as “near miss” as the pilots think. But when all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Just ask UFO enthusiasts.

It’s not a bold prediction to say that a midair between a manned and an unmanned aircraft will happen (eventually). What’s harder to predict is the frequency of these collisions and the severity of them. If you’re flying a Cessna for a $100 hamburger, what are the odds you really will hit a drone? If you do, will it cause serious damage or be fatal? How about for a Boeing that weighs 950,000 pounds?

The bird strike example is a relevant one here – while there were over 11,000 bird strikes in 2013, only 605 caused aircraft damage, and none of them were fatal. Is there any reason to believe a two pound quadcopter would be much different? The large unmanned airplanes are tightly controlled and on flight plans, so these under-five pound hobby machines are the only legitimate threat.

DJI Phantom
Could this really take down a 737?

All this hysteria has a cost. While we’ve been panicking about drones, dozens of pilots have died in low level stalls or VFR-into-IMC accidents. We’ve even had a real airplane midair, between a jet and a Cessna in San Diego. None of these make the nightly news or the front page of the New York Times, but all of them present a much more serious threat to general aviation safety.

It’s easy to blame the media here, and they deserve it. But that’s not the end of the story. The root of the problem is at the FAA, an agency that has been paralyzed by the thought of releasing UAS rules that are anything less than comprehensive. It’s a classic case of the top-down, bureaucratic rule-making process being unable to adapt to fast-moving technology. Instead of releasing the broad outlines of a drone policy and then iterating, the FAA has said flatly: “We don’t do betas.”

It’s a great line, but it’s hopelessly naive. The outside world is doing a beta on live TV instead; the FAA is just hiding from it. Perhaps the FAA’s line should be from Voltaire: “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” 

This may be starting to change now, at least slowly. Proposed UAS rules were released this year and are, all in all, pretty sensible. More recently, the FAA appointed two new people to senior UAS roles, both with records of actually getting things done. They need to move quickly. California’s recent bill that practically bans drone flights is just the most visible knee jerk reaction at the local level, proof that if you wait too long politicians will fill the void with truly awful legislation.

There’s another threat beyond bad local laws: TFRs. In an effort to deter drones, these may pop up even more often as a sort of catch all prohibition. It’s a blunt instrument, but it’s the only existing option for big events. And remember, all the fancy FAA rules are for commercial operations; those for hobbyists are pretty limited.

I spend a lot of time flying below 1000 ft, so I am not excited about hitting a quadcopter. And people who fly drones around wildfires during a TFR are flat out stupid; they deserve no sympathy. But nobody stops flying because they might hit a bird one day, and we don’t need to paralyze our aviation industry because of an overblown drone threat either.

For now, there are plenty of other things we can do to improve aviation safety. Want to panic? Read Dick Collins’s latest article about the accident rate. That’s why I’m headed out to practice slow flight.

65 Comments

  • This was an outstanding Blog – Johns Blog. It says everything a Remote Control enthusiast wants to say and it was presented in an organized/to-the-point manner. Wow, I believe that no one could have summed up the frustration better than this. Thank you John! I will be using your comments when ever I can.

    Lee Scott

    • Lots of good discussion here. Many comments seem to be naysayers of the threat that drones present. Some say that there are more serious things to worry about such as, stall/spins, VFR into IMC, fuel exhaustion, etc. I agree, except these are things I can control…..drones, I cannot control. As for the severity of damage at impact….years ago I read and saw pictures of a straw stuck in a tree trunk during a storm. Say this happened in a 120 mph hurricane, it shows I believe how much energy is created in such instances. Also don’t forget that how Styrofoam from the space shuttle launch boosters damaged and tore off the thermal tiles on the space shuttle that were to protect it upon reentry. This was never tested until after the disaster and the results were astonishing and amazed the engineers as to how much damage they caused. So my point is that these “little” drones, no matter how small or how little they weigh can do substantial damage to an airplane, impacting at the right spot, which by necessity is made from light and fragile material.

      A side note. I believe that the geese that hit Sully’s 767 “choked” the engines and prevented them from breathing.

  • Yet, another high flying drone was sighted at 6000’on the weekend over JFK by an airline pilot, and confirmed by a private pilot who was transiting the airspace. 6000′ ….. BTW, this was not in a “media report” – it was witnessed by a colleague, who was asked to call the FAA after landing with more details.

    The problem is that many drone operators do not understand / regard airspace rules. I certainly don’t want to be the first aircraft taken down by an irresponsible operator.

    • CharleyA so your honestly saying that a pilot flying at 200mph plus at 6000 feet spotted something the size of a dinner plate?

      IF and that is a big operator here it was not a figment of someone imagination high flying drones are not micro-UAS system that 99% of all operators have. That is well beyond the transmitter capabilities. They are either Military, heavy weight UAS systems, or FPV RC platforms.

  • Figure out how to install an ADS-B transmitter in these little suckers (they already have wass gps!) and let them join our skies like responsible adults.

    • ADSB “sounds” like a good solution, but how many aircraft have ADSB-in to detect another aircraft transmitting ADS-B 1090ES? Also, ATC can’t see an ADSB equipped aircraft if it’s too low to be heard by an ADSB Ground Station.

  • We actually had a recent drone strike with one of the aircraft at our flight school (8A6). A small drone impacted the wing of the PA-28-140 while on final at KEQY. The aircraft was repaired, but it was a scary close call. The FAA investigated and ended up determining it to be an “incident.”

        • I cannot provide an official description. I will check with the PIC to see if he knows what ever happened after the investigation.

          I do know that the “drone” was never recovered. I don’t think they can conclusively call it a “drone” strike without some kind of material evidence. What is obvious is that something impacted the wing. A bird is unlikely given the lack of feathers/blood that you typically see in those cases.

          I of course recognize the strong possibility of this being a fish story. I wouldn’t believe it at all if I hadn’t seen the damage, but the fact remains that the only indication that a drone was involved was testimony of the student who was flying left seat.

  • I get John’s point, that there is a lot of media-driven hysteria over drones, as well as various other flavors of the week risk factors in flying. Yet I think it’s short-sighted to point to lack of big numbers on drone-manned aircraft collisions to date and say, what’s the problem? The concern over drones is not today as much as it is for tomorrow.

    A few key points:

    1) A 2 to 5 pound cheap consumer drone may not sound big compared to a 2,500 pound light aircraft, let alone a B-777 … yet, it was a flock of similarly sized geese who famously brought down a big airliner in New York City.

    2) It’s all about the kinetic energy in a collision, which varies as the square of velocity and linearly with mass. The kinetic energy of a 5-pound drone flying at 40 mph colliding head on with a light aircraft flying at 150 mph is 6,034 foot-pounds force. You don’t think that’s not going to blow out a windscreen and probably kill the pilot or front seat passenger? Or knock a prop blade off, or rip a big hole in the leading edge of an aluminum-skinned wing?

    3) The numbers of drones are still very small today … and are likely to increase exponentially in the future as mass production lowers prices and people discover more uses for drones, for good or ill.

    4) The capabilities of drones are still slight today compared to what they will certainly become tomorrow and in the years to come. They will certainly get bigger, fly faster, fly higher, and carry larger payloads. Today’s 2 to 5 pounder flying maybe 40 mph may morph into tomorrow’s 100 pounder flying 150 mph going up to the flight levels and perhaps have ranges of hundreds of miles. There is no technological requirement that a drone be within line of sight radio contact with an operator … they can be programmed to fly autonomously without input from a ground operator, or perhaps commercial satellites will allow unlimited ground control to and from anywhere on the face of this planet.

    It is foolish to presume that today’s drones are all that we as pilots will ever encounter. As John points out, the FAA has been extremely slow to even begin to address drone use rules with today’s relatively low performance capabilities … how the heck is the FAA going to deal with a technology that literally has no limits whatsoever?

    This is a future concern much more than a today concern.

    • Good points Duane. But details matter. For example, the FAA has been clear that weight will determine regulations. That 100 pound drone will have to have a transponder and maybe even a flight plan. Likewise, beyond line of sight will be the drone equivalent of IFR flying – it’s not just something you’ll launch and take a joy ride.

      • John,

        Yes, of course details matter. But the FAA has no real ability to police a non-piloting population, even if they have the legal authority to do so. It’s one thing to police the ranks of pilots, who spend a lot of time, effort, and money to get a license that is at risk if found in violation.

        The general population, however, has no equivalent “skin in the game” as do licensed pilots. If the FAA finds them in violation, at most they may get a fine, if convicted (that is, if they’re ever even identified as the culprit … how many laser-pointing perps are ever identified and convicted now for violating the rules against pointing lasers at aircraft?).

        Ditto with the manufacturers of drones, who do not have to go through FAA certification, and so have little skin in the game should the FAA determine their aircraft capabilities are not per regulation.

        The world of drone flying is effectively the “wild wild west”, with no law and no sheriffs or marshals to enforce the law. The FAA may get a handle on it eventually – but I have severe doubts about that! I rather suspect that there will be little to no governmental response until drones start taking down large numbers of aircraft, or perhaps one or two large airliners, after which the public will demand an effective response. That’s exactly what we can expect some day.

      • John, I look at the risk to light aircraft since I fly light aircraft and they tend to concentrate in tighter airspace in great numbers.
        Consider a 100 pound drone. I’m IFR, being vectored, and some yahoo with no care of where airways are situated decides to fly his drone to see how high it will go. He probably thinks those Cessnas and Pipers are spoiled brats who have the nerve to dominate the airways and that he’s going to teach them a lesson with his drone. You know the rest.
        There are issues of responsibility and accountability and unless the drones are registered and carry a transponder there is no telling who was responsible for flying a drone that hit a four place Cessna and killed four people. Think of the gum chewing real estate agent who wants to video that new listing in Inglewood, under the LAX flight path, and flies her GoPro and drone (combined weight 100 lbs) to 300 feet (which is where the aircraft on final to LAX are on short final).
        Senator Feinstein is said to be proposing legislation that will require commercial pilots operate drones (I guess that would be commercial drones, like Amazon proposes). Commercial pilots are licensed, have charts and know where the airways are, and can fly safely. It’s the thrill seekers that worry me, the yahoo that wants to push the envelope. Or the insane person who might be inclined to go into a movie theater and shoot it up and decides that is too hard and that flying a drone into a flight corridor is easier. It will happen!

        • Pat, Who is operating 100b drones? The best commercial video platforms out there are less than 40lbs and that is for Hollywood style productions. No one outside of the goverment is flying anything over 55 pounds. Most are flying what is considered a Micro-UAS that is under 5.

          The real estate’s agents 4 pound DJI Phantom will not even spin up if she is in the 5 mile buffer after the last firmware update.

          How many pilots worried about RC planes flying FPV 5 years ago? They were out there but no one was concerned. A FPV platfom weights alot more than a plastic drone….

        • Remind me to tell you about the VERY-near-midair I had in solid IMC, with a no-transponder C-172 – a 2,400 pound “drone,” if ever I saw one.

          Just what exactly is your solution to the problem you so elegantly describe? (That is NOT a rhetorical question.)

    • Just to put things in perspective, relative to the 6,034 ft-lbf kinetic energy of the 40-mph 5-pound drone colliding head-on with a 150 mph light aircraft, here are some other examples of the muzzle energy of various firearms cartridges:

      Colt .45 ACP (used in M-1911 auto pistols and known as “man-stoppers” – 416 ft-lbf

      5.56mm (the round used in the M-16, AR-15, M-4, etc.) – 1,325 ft-lbf
      7.62mm (the round used in the old WWII M1 Garand rifle) – 1,527 ft-lbf
      .338 Lapua Magnum (used in long range sniper rifles) – 4,893 ft-lbf

      Now just imagine the 5-lb, 40-mph drone has morphed in a few years into a 100-lb, 150 mph beast, and it hits your Cessna or Piper or RV.

    • John, it took a flock of geese to bring down Sully’s 767. No single drone is ever going to bring down a multi-engine aircraft.

  • John, I take your points, but I am not wholly reassured. The number of truly “stupid drone tricks” reported is sobering, including UASs crashed into sporting events and restricted areas such as the White House lawn. Apparently, lacking altimeters or common sense, some people are flying their quadracopters considerably above the FAA-mandated 400 ft ceiling (though I strongly doubt the claim of one seen at 6000 ft) and therefore well into approach and departure levels at GA fields. I agree that the agency response is sadly lacking, and I can only hope they get a handle on this before every precinct in the country has its own “drone laws.” As a former aeromodeler, I also worry about rules that might damage the sport of R/C flying.

    • “Apparently, lacking altimeters or common sense, some people are flying their quadracopters considerably above the FAA-mandated 400 ft ceiling ..”

      This is what we in the rational world call “Fear Mongering”.

      Most personal drones do have a barometric altimeter and a data link to the control point, but the FAA has not “mandated” 400 ft, only recommended it through AC91-57a.

      There is absolutely no factual evidence to support the fear and ignorance around small personal drones. There have been hundreds of thousands of hours of flight of small drones, yet there is not one verifiable report of a drone crash that resulted in a serious injury as defined by the NTSB to someone not connected to the flight. Not one. (A Band-Aid is not a serious injury- See CFR 49 §830.2). There is also not one verifiable report of a collision between a small drone and a manned aircraft. Not one.

      An FAA executive speaking to a nervous audience of helicopter operators at HAI Heli-Expo in Orlando (March 2015) and said that while there’s never been a reported contact between an sUAS and a civilian aircraft, the military has some experience in that regard. In all cases the aircraft was virtually unscathed while the UAS was “smashed to pieces.” (I must add that military UAS tend to be a lot bigger and heavier than personal drones).

      Small UAVs do not pose any significant risk to the National Airspace System. “Dangerous” and “invasion of privacy” concerns are ridiculous, driven by paranoia borne of ignorance and propagated by lazy, irresponsible news media.

      Where’s the blood and mayhem to justify the perception that small personal drones are a threat to public safety?

  • I worry more about meteorites hitting my plane. Do you know how many hit the planet each day? It’s just scary. Maybe we need some regs on that.

  • Hey John, how about you volunteering to be on the 737 that the little drone goes through the left engine….huh? Or one goes through your windshield. Talk is cheap and your blog is worth every bit of what it cost me. Drones only purpose is to look down and they couldn’t care less about the hazards around them. Even if they had ADS-B installed, how would someone on the ground react if there was a close encounter? Especially with no skin in the game. Personally, they scare the living crap outta me.

    • Roger, I spend a lot of time flying helicopters below 500 ft, so I may have more exposure than most. I don’t want to hit one. I promise.

      But the emotion on this subject is just way ahead of the facts. This week a report came out showing that (shocking!) most of these drone “near misses” are false or overblown: http://www.modelaircraft.org/gov/docs/AMAAnalysis-Closer-Look-at-FAA-Drone-Data_091415.pdf

      We should worry about this emerging threat. My head isn’t in the sand. But we should worry about a lot of other threats more. It’s human nature – we worry about scary but rare events far more than similarly deadly but more mundane events. I bet the next accident we read about is caused by weather, stall/spin or spatial disorientation. Not drones.

      • Here is my list of things to worry about:

        Today (if this is an average day in the US):
        1560 people will die from Cancer
        268 people in US hospitals will die because of medical mistakes.
        162 people will be wounded by firearms in the US.
        117 Americans will die in an automobile accident.
        98 people in the US will die from the flu.
        53 people will kill themselves with a firearm.
        46 children will suffer eye injuries.
        37 will die from AIDS.
        30 people will die in gun-related murders.
        18 pilots will report a Laser Incident
        3 General Aviation airplanes will crash in the US.
        0 people will be seriously injured or killed by a small drone accident.*

        Zero. Why are so many otherwise rational people so terrified of zero?
        The panic, here, is completely out of any sort of proportion to reality.

        * I have to add the asterisk because too many otherwise reasonable people think a band-aid is a serious injury. CFR 49 §830.2 contains the definition of “Serious Injury” that the FAA and NTSB use in their aircraft and vehicular accident statistics. It is important to hold small UAS accidents to the same metric, otherwise comparisons are meaningless. There is not one verifiable report of a drone crash that resulted in a serious injury as defined by the NTSB to someone not connected to the flight. Not one.

        That is a safety record that any other segment of aviation would be jealous to have.

    • Hey Roger,
      If you commercial pilots would stop sleeping at the wheel, playing with you’re laptops during flights, pinching the stewardess hind ends, and all commercial pilots go through AND pass a thorough mental evaluation every two years then you might be able to notice the dangers all around you plus be mentally stable enough to fly safely.

      You want to lump all people young and old as a bunch of spying, disrespectful, dangerous hobbyist then you can be lumped in with all the Unionized Air Bus-Drivers. Go vent somewhere else.

  • Twenty-five years ago a 15 lb. pelican brought down a 470,000 lb. B-1 bomber. A lightweight UAV hitting a critical area could disable a GA airplane too.

  • It would appear the FAA has contracted the same malady as the FMCSA – many years ago, Congress ordered FMCSA to develop driver training guidelines. They still haven’t succeeded. I’ve come to the conclusion that expecting a bureaucracy to come up with any meaningful, sensible regulation of nearly anything to be one of those “don’t hold your breath” things. As has already been commented, how would they actually police it? I would guess that any regulations regarding drones would be about as effective as the many laws that exist regarding texting or even phone usage while driving, or for that matter, driving while intoxicated. However severe the punishments may be (and for commercial drivers and their employers, the punishment is harsh indeed), if they’re not observed (even by cops) or not enforced, they’re meaningless. Does passing an unenforceable law increase respect for the law? Does it force everyone to use common sense? Other than massive signal jamming, I don’t see any realistic way to enforce any regs the Feds do manage to come up with.

  • Duane has made many points that many have ignored. The mass and velocity of a five pound drone means that it can cause significant damage to a any aircraft, heavy or light. While the statistical probability of a strike are small, it might be a strike on an airliner that puts it into the attention of the public. The FAA will then be forced to take action. A side not, radio control hobbyists go to considerable effort to comply with a set of standards set by the AMA. Enthusiasts watch each other to ensure compliance. The general public is ignorant of this common-sense rules and will violate them without thinking, putting us all in danger.

    • FAA already had an opinion in their draft Micro-UAS policy that a stike is unlikely to cause severe damage. His numbers do not take into account the frangible nature of the drones. Hit an empty 4 pound plastic bucket on the freeway and your car has not damage. Hit a 4 pound block of concrete on the freeway and your going to be in the body shop.

      • FYI, 4 pounds of concrete is about half the size of a common residential construction BRICK – not a concrete block. Few birds are made of concrete; even fewer “drones.”

        • Dear Tom:
          The kinetic energy of a 5 lb object hitting a plane is great – here’s a video of a bird hitting as Cessna windshield, and the bird hit the edge of the plexi windshield and while the windshield shattered, the bird was deflected.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Q4dzvwXVI
          There was a Beech Bonanza in Mexico where the bird came through the right side of the windshield – there was nobody on that side and the pilot (while bloodied) was able to fly, but had the bird come through the left side the pilot would have been disabled and the plane would have crashed, also endangering those on the ground. Drones are equivalent weight but are more rigid and more likely to cause injury. They’ll damage and imbalance stator blades in a turbine engine, especially.
          Drones are not a problem in the hands of educated, responsible operators. Accountability is a problem. Who does your estate pursue if a drone takes down the plane that you are in?

          • A small quadcopter was at least enough to break most of the rivets over a wing rib in the Cherokee that had a drone strike at our airport (details in previous post). It was a small drone, and hit the top of the wing. I shudder to think what would have happened had it impacted the windscreen.

          • Pat:

            I’ve had several birdstrikes, and I’m a career engineer. So I know about the energy of impact and the frangibility of aircraft. I’m compelled to point out that all of my mid-airs have been with those damned unregulated birds (discounting insects and bats).

            This space has been filled with comments that decry the “lack of regulation,” juxtaposed with comments about”amateurs who pay no heed to regulations.” Assuming that those wildcats are the problem, what possible regulations will convert the lawless into the lawful? It hasn’t worked with handguns, drunken driving, texting, or jay-walking.

            Compelling a quad-copter operator to possess a PPASEL certificate is absurd – it only encourages contempt for the law.

            The technology exists to “teach” every newborn quad to avoid prohibited airspace. No involvement by the operator. None. Problem solved.

      • Matt – you (like John elsewhere in this thread) are ignoring the facts when you point to the “frangible nature of drones”.

        Firstly, all drones are powered by a motor of some type, and most (unlike typical model aircraft) are powered by electric motors that require relatively large, heavy, and certainly very dense metallic storage batteries that make up a large portion of the weight of a typical drone. As the drones get larger and more powerful, the batteries will also get larger and heavier.

        At a combined rate of collision speeds of upwards of 190 mph, I don’t want my aircraft colliding with as much as a single AAA battery, let alone a multi-pound drone battery.

        Second, drones are designed to carry a payload which is usually made of stuff that is hard and dense. Video cams (Go Pro most commonly) have batteries themselves, as well as hard metallic cases and multi-element lenses.

        At a combined rate of collision speeds of upwards of 190 mph, I don’t want my aircraft colliding with an airborne Go Pro video cam either.

        Finally, there are no effective limits to the nature of the payload that can be carried by a private drone. People seem to take comfort that a 55-pound weight limit – should it ever be practically let alone legally enforceable – will somehow protect aircraft. A 55 pound drone colliding with a light aircraft anywhere in the prop/engine/passenger compartment at 190 mph combined collision speed will almost certainly bring down any light aircraft.

  • Quote: ‘A 2 to 5 pound cheap consumer drone may not sound big compared to a 2,500 pound light aircraft, let alone a B-777 … yet, it was a flock of similarly sized geese who famously brought down a big airliner in New York City…’

    …So ONE 5 pound drone is as dangerous as an ENTIRE FLOCK of 7 TO 14 pound geese! How is this ONE small drone going to take out ALL the engines on a multi-engine airliner? This is the kind of baseless comparisons that the press uses to drive ‘drone paranoia’. Not to mention a 5 pound drone is much more fragile than a 7 to 14 pound goose. Drones are mostly brittle thin plastic with some smaller harder parts to keep mass to a minimum.

    The other fallacy is that there is no regulation of drones (really RC multi rotor copters, a drone flies autonomously without anyone actively flying it, currently only the military is allowed to fly these). Reading the interpretation by the FAA (https://www.faa.gov/uas/media/model_aircraft_spec_rule.pdf) If the ‘drones’ are not flown in accordance to published hobbyist guidelines which are pretty reasonable, then the ‘toy’ is considered an ‘aircraft’ and such subject to all regulations already set forth by the FAA for aircraft. As such under current regulations, the FAA could bust a drone operator for endangering manned aircraft and/or busting controlled airspace among many other issues. And of course there is always the catch all’s of Felony Criminal Negligence, or Reckless Endangerment, we don’t necessarily need laws ‘specific’ to drones. There are quite a few existing ones that can be used for enforcement.

    As for reports of seeing ‘drones’ at 6,000 ft, almost none of the consumer drones are capable of that, they don’t have the power nor the battery life to climb that high. If there was truly a drone at 6k ft, I bet it belonged to the US Government, whom makes themselves exempt from most of the rules and regulations…

    I agree with Mr. Zimmeramn, the ‘problem’ is greatly exaggerated. What is needed right now is for the FAA to get off their rear-ends and pass sensible UAS regulations. The US is already nearly a DECADE behind Canada, U.K., Australia, and many others, it is hurting and entire new industry that could be creating a lot of jobs.

    • Drones are not flown just to have a 5-pound object flying around for its own sake. Drones carry PAYLOADS THAT ARE USUALLY MADE OF HARD STUFF – like digital video cameras, and lord knows whatever other objects can be loaded onto the drone.

      I flat out guarantee that if a 40-mph 5-lb drone goes through your windscreen at 150 mph in the opposite direction, it will smash your windscreen and likely hit you square in the face, injuring you, quite likely blinding you, and possibly killing you.

      A 5-lb bird will do the same, though they are made mostly of soft tissue, unlike the lense, metal case, metalic batteries, and other stuff that makes up a typical GoPro video cam or the like.

      Now imagine that drone operators – like Amazon wants to do, and is doing, and will continue to do – use drones not just to fly a camera, but to fly other stuff (packages of anything that the drone can physically lift) from one place to another.

      This is not science fiction – it’s already underway, and the tiny rivulets of drone-delivered packages will soon become massive waves of stuff of all sizes flying through the air, with their operators safely on the ground and who have no physical “skin in the (aviation) game”, unlike us.

      So, don’t comfort yourself that drones are only light plastic feathers floating on the air, posing no danger to anyone but butterflies.

  • Well said John. Let’s keep our focus on the issues that are killing people. And let’s not expect the FAA to fix the drone problem. The drone industry is much more likely to put corrective action in place with their less regulated environment.

  • The problem here are that there is no meaningful regulation of drones at all. How is the FAA supposed to police somebody they can’t find? The operators are not registerered, are anonymous and most have NO traing or awareness of what is legal or safe in regards to collision risk with an occupied aircraft.

    John, you are burying your head in the sand. I suppose you will not see a problem until an aircraft is brought down or someone dies. At the rate these things are being sold to unvetted and unqualified “pilots”, it is a matter of when, not if that will happen.

  • Anyone remember the beginnings of CB radio? Where you had to be licensed? And then cheap radios flooded the country (and the radios appeared in movies like “Smokey and the Bandit”)? The FCC tried to regulate. And it got completely away from them.

    Only in situations where someone was running so much amplification or such a miss-tuned radio that it interfered with public safety frequencies would the FCC get involved. And if it was a portable/mobile unit, they were often ineffective.

    Granted, those annoyances were not killing people (besides cooking the brains of the users). But it is a good example of how/where the government becomes ineffective at regulation/enforcement.

    • Could not disagree with blogger more. In reality we worship the new tech gadget not because they are any real scientific breakthrough, but because they make a lot of people a lot of money quick. It used to be that regulation hurt the little guy because only he big guys had to money to comply, now we are morphing into a political economy where the big guys just ignores the regulation that applies to anyone else. If you fly an aircraft in the airspace, whether you are in it or out of it, you need to follow all the same regulations. Drones are getting bigger, but worse they are being sold cheap everywhere. I suspect the pro drone advocates have a financial interest in the unregulated proliferation. If you are not worried about birds in your flight path you shouldn’t be flying. There is little we can do about birds, but regulating drones is a no brainer, unless your greed has shut off your brain.

      • Your comment that “the big guys just ignores the regulation” is dead wrong, I think. The big companies are the only ones who actually care about regulations – they fill out the paperwork, get the 333 exemptions and COAs, have operations manuals. It’s the little guy who doesn’t even know regulations exist, and he goes out and does something stupid.

  • Geese have a high density in their body mass. A drone has avery low density comprised of easy destructable parts with a lot of space inbetween. One object will do much more damage than the other under similar impact scenarios.
    The plane that landed on the hudson was taken down by a “Flock” of geese with multiple engine strike.
    Until we get drone swarms with the density and mass of a large goose then the risk and liklehood of a similar incident to the hudson one, is at the lower left corner of the criticality scale.
    USA feed on fear in large helpings, Drone mania does not exist to same level in any other country.

    • Again, John – you’re completely ignoring the payload of the drone. Plus, the drone itself is powered by a battery, which is a dense, solid, metallic object that likely makes up half or more of the total weight.

      Assuming you drive automobiles on the highway. Have you ever been hit on the windshield, driving at say 70 mph, by a small rock (little bigger than a pebble) thrown up in the air by a truck just ahead of you? That little rock, weighing a small fraction of an ounce, travelling in the opposite direction of you at maybe, 40 mph, will easily make a big dent in your heavy tempered glass windshield, and may well result in having to replace your windshield.

      Now imagine a 2 pound battery, flying through the air inside the 5 pound drone, at 40 mph, colliding with your thin plastic windscreen at 150 mph.

      The difference in kinetic energy is immense between the two scenarios. And the battery most certainly will go straight through your windscreen and, if it is in the path, straight through your bloody pulp of a demolished head. That battery will have approximately the same kinetic energy as a high powered rifle round.

  • Everyone keeps harping on the “5 pound drone” and “how much damage can they cause”… The danger to people isn’t just to those flying, when model aircraft and drones come down, they can and do, hit things including people. It’s true that someone getting injured is rare but the worry is the exponential proliferation of these aircraft particularly the multi-rotor copter versions. The author mentions the new rules released “and are, all in all, pretty sensible.” Right.

    First of all they aren’t rules at all but an Advisory Circular, they have little weight when it comes to regulating anything. Second AC-91.57A limits the weight to 55 (Fifty Five) pounds, that’s gigantic and If that was over my home I’d be very concerned for my safety. Perhaps the proposed CFR 14 Part 107 will more clearly define what is allowed and what is not, we just have to wait and see how many follow the rules.

    So no, there are no “Common Sense” rules established and the admitted small hazards we see today will, in my opinion, continue to grow.

    • Andy, I’m not suggesting safety is a fad. That would be ridiculous. What I’m suggesting is that certain topics become fads in our industry – runway incursions being a recent example. It’s an issue to address, but it’s not on the top 10 list of airplane crash causes. We get tired of hearing about the same old accidents (loss of control, weather) so we seek out new threats, whether they’re a big deal or not.

      I’m not sure what a real pilot is (https://airfactsjournal.com/2014/05/10-things-real-pilots/) but I’ve been flying for about 20 years. All that means is I’m still learning. And I’m still more worried about a mistake I might make than a quadcopter.

  • I appreciate your point of view. Well written on the side that usually doesn’t get a voice. I personally think your comments are somewhat dangerous and riddled with complacency. I’m very happy about this “fad”. I work in wildfire aviation and my job is airspace management. This issue is a real problem and the perspective of civil or non-utility commercial operators tends to be different. There are Regs like TFRs and proximity restrictions to aerodromes and other objects that good hobbieists know and follow, but unfortunately the ignorant cause everyone to be painted with the same brush.
    I agree with the fact that the media jumped on board and exagurated the issue, but that doesn’t take away from the real issue. Drones are being used irresponsibly!
    I’d much rather take a bird in the intake than a heap of plastic and medal.

  • The “facts” in this article are extremely soft at best. Just because something has not happened yet, is no reason to state it will never happen. The people expressing concerns are absolutely correct, and any true risk analysis will clearly back that up.

    As most of us know, risk analysis includes two components, the likelihood of an event happening, and the impact of the event if it does happen.

    There is no question, that sooner or later, there will be a mid-air collision with a drone. The only debate on this risk is how soon and how often. To state anything other than this is foolish at best.

    The impact of those events are somewhat debatable. But, it is a known fact that small birds have resulted in human fatalities from collisions with aircraft. And, the larger the bird, the more the damage.

    So, should we take the head-in-the-sand attitude as suggested in this blog? Or, do something pro-active before someone gets killed. And clearly, if something isn’t done, there is no question that fatalities will occur at some point from a collision with a drone.

    In my opinion, the ADHD as John wishes to call it, is very well founded.

    • I don’t recall anyone saying it won’t happen, just that the predictions of mayhem is unreasonable. The panic, here, is completely out of any sort of proportion to reality.

      “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire. You can’t legislate perfection.

      Find my other post here that includes: In a typical day in the USA…..
      3 General Aviation airplanes will crash in the US.
      0 people will be seriously injured or killed by a small drone accident.*

      *49 CFR §830.2

    • Jerry: You say the ‘facts’ are soft at best. What ‘facts’ do you refer to? As JohnZ stated, there is no data, just media frenzy. The AMA letter John linked to provided the best thing I’ve seen for data – which analyzed NMC and UFO reports claiming they were ‘drones.’ The only known facts are that these UAS can’t be seen beyond a few hundred feet and can’t get to the altitude some claim to see them.

      As JohnZ points out, he data shows that midairs of any sort are incredibly rare, yet some spend big money to get cockpit traffic displays and ignore the real killers like stall/spin. One wonders at our ability to assess risk.

      The fact is you are arguing for the precautionary principle – an argument from ignorance. Please don’t.

      Why do some people scare so easily?

  • ” Millions were spent on technology and training. But then runway incursions seem to fade…”.
    Seems to me the purpose of the “technology and training” was to ensure that runway incursions faded…..and they did, as you state.
    Now the possibility of a drone hitting a 140, a Champ, etc.., an occurrence which certainly could have catastrophic consequences depending upon the impact point on the aircraft, is not to be fretted over according to you. While we’ve been panicking, a jet collided with a Cessna over San Diego. Surely you’re not referring to the 727vs 172 accident of decades ago. No one had conceived of a drone then, much less panicked over them.
    I guess my overall point is this: so often the FAA is reactionary to aviation safety. i.e., it takes a death or two to change things. Now the guys in Ok City are trying to get out in front of an issue and
    you say it’s unnecessary. Can’t have it both ways.

  • The FAA’s proposal to require UAV operators to possess a Private Pilot certificate is about as nutty as their proposal to screen pilots for undiagnosed sleep apnea. But such is the prevailing OKC mentality.

    • Tom, if you are referring to the Part 107 NPRM currently in the mill, the proposal is to create a new Airman’s Certificate unique to small UAS. No practical exam, just a written test.

  • One thing I fear is FAA facilities getting distracted with UAV BS. For instance, I want the local tower protecting ME, while I’m in their airspace. If tower personnel are busy fielding phone calls from people 3 miles away, who are notifying then of their back yard “drone flight” plans, SOMEONE had to take the call and tell the person they don’t care (More tactfully.)

  • Glenn, it’s worse than that with commercial flights. I flew a Section 333 exemption mission recently, 0.9 miles from the airport center. This flight was for a TV commercial and consisted of flying up the side of the building and then down the parking lot. We never went over 50 ft. AGL. (The nearby buildings and other structures were 80- to 100-ft tall).

    A Section 333 exemption flight requires a COA with the local FSDO, prior notification of the local FSDO, a NOTAM, and permission from the tower days before the flight. That is an awful lot of FAA personnel time occupied with a flight that won’t even show up on anyone’s radar, let alone have any effect of manned aircraft.

    I was careful to make sure all the notifications and paperwork were filed because this was for a national TV commercial, I.E., High Profile. I even filed a NASA report because we saw some people on adjacent property outside looking at what was going on. And according to the Section 333 letter conditions, that was a violation on our part. (They were about 300 ft away and no one even saw them before the final take).

    Wanna bet that most commercial flights don’t do all the required paperwork?

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