Drones: a clear and present danger?

Caveat: I have nothing against drones. My last US Air Force assignment was serving as the deputy director of the now-defunct Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence (JUASCOE).

Most of our unclassified, white-world tasks involved helping the FAA figure out how to safely integrate Department of Defense UAS into the National Airspace System. Our real goal was to come up with solutions that worked for all UAS… not just the DoD’s.

Unfortunately, the JUASCOE, along with the rest of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, was formally dissolved in 2011. As a result, many very talented folks were sent back to their respective services, and a lot of important stuff they developed was lost in the shuffle.

I recently had an encounter that highlights some of my concerns regarding the exponential proliferation of civilian UAS. It has nothing to do with the operator’s “flying skills;” it’s the potentially dangerous attitude(s) and culture that are growing along with the number of machines.

I was fishing one afternoon at Bella Bella Beach, a sand spit on Fox Island, near Tacoma, Washington. Fox Island sits just southwest of Tacoma Narrows (KTIW), a towered airport tucked underneath Seattle’s Class B airspace. They were using Runway 35 that day, and you could clearly see several planes in the pattern. The beach is 3.4 miles from the approach end of Rwy 35, well inside KTIW’s Class D airspace.

Three driving-age teenagers (one boy, two girls) showed up with a drone; they walked out to the eastern tip of the spit, a couple hundred feet from me, to set it up. It was a typical quadcopter; way bigger than .55 lbs., and way less than 55 lbs.

Drone
The drone doesn’t know where airspace is; it’s up to the operator.

They set a camera up on a tripod to film the takeoff, then launched it into the vertical. I can’t tell you exactly how high it went, but it got really tiny. Then they drove it, at high speed, due east, directly towards KTIW. I can’t tell you exactly how far, but it exceeded my “line-of-sight” and was out of earshot.

About the time I thought I’d better investigate further, it came speeding back. They packed it up quickly and started back down the beach toward me. I did not want to appear threatening or belligerent; so, I thought, “I’ll use this as a teaching moment…”

As the girl carrying the drone walked by, I asked politely, “Can I ask you a question about your drone?”

Our discussion, verbatim:

“Sure,” as she kept walking.

“Do you fly your drone here very often?”

“No, I’m not from around here.”

“Are you familiar with the rules for flying drones near airports?”

“Uh, sure.”

“Well, I think you may have broken a big one.” (I was taking a chance that they hadn’t called the KTIW tower first.)

“Oh, they don’t care as long as you fly low enough…”

“Well, that’s not what the rules say.”

They clearly didn’t want to stop and talk: she gave me one last, colorful comment as she looked back at me over her shoulder.

I’ve had at least three other encounters, always on a local beach, very near KTIW. Fortunately, they’ve turned into congenial discussions where I’ve pointed out to folks their proximity to the airport—and its controlled airspace. I always pull out my iPhone and show them on ForeFlight exactly where we’re at, relative to the runway.

One time, I had to speak up because of the planes flying on downwind, directly over our heads…

In each of these cases, they were hobbyists, not Part 107 operators, and had no idea there were any rules regarding UAS operations.

I appreciate the chance of those kids hitting someone landing on runway 35 was pretty remote (no pun intended). The point is you can’t assume that small UAS are not going to be operated near airports, in violation of the rules. If looking for small flying objects in/near the traffic pattern isn’t part of your habit pattern, you might want to make it so.

21 Comments

  • What is in this article has been my concern. I recently discussed with a drone operator that aircraft (medical helicopter, ag operators, etc.) do not have to stay above 500 ft. The operator was appalled. More emphasis needs to be placed on see and be seen. 400 ft. Rule does nothing for safety.

  • As an aerial imaging professional, I have been building drones and operating aerial imaging technology far before the consumer introduction. I could not agree with you more. I am also a GA pilot, plane owner, and avid weekly flyer. The biggest issue, of which is rarely addressed, is that drones WILL FAIL….not if, but when. They are for the most part, sub $5000 pieces of electronics, built in China, with no manufacturing regulations. They do not actually “fly”. When something in the electrical system goes bad, the entire system goes down. At some point, every consumer drone, will “fly away”, lose signal or fall from the sky. I have seen it happen with my own eyes, 3 times, in the professional field. A tiny majority follow the “line of sight” rule, and depend on the GPS and auto-return functions built into the system. Again, we are talking about the most popular drones costing $1000? For $1000 you can’t expect too much quality or safety redundancy in the system? As far as the drone operators themselves are concerned, It boils down to a cultural “lack of respect” for the surrounding community. The current drone regulations are in place, but local authorities have not been authorized, nor trained, on how to address the ignorance of most amateur drone operators.

  • Long-time modeler here, radio control, control line and free flight. Also a 1200-hour private pilot, A&P and lifetime aviation professional. I’ve watched as the drone/multicopters got cheaper and easier to operate. They’re not “flown”, just operated. Build a system that even a fool can use and too many fools will use it. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a fatal accident involving these things. There have been near disasters, including collisions already. They’re are ruining it for traditional modelers who have flown safely under the Academy of Model Aeronautics Safety Code for decades. Now the FAA wants to require inflight ID of ALL models, both over the air in a system that hasn’t been invented yet, and the internet. They also propose requiring registration of each individual UAS, including all drones, lumping in traditional fixed wing models, a bureaucratic nightmare. We’re already required to have our personal FAA-issued ID number on our models. Geofencing is a great start but more needs to be done before somebody gets killed. Maybe require operator licensing and proof of operator licensing before a drone can be sold? Certification standards for UAS in including geofencing before they can be sold? Whatever happens, it’s going to nearly impossible to enforce.

  • And here we have the recent cybersecurity concerns around drones….

    I teach an aviation safety class and one of the discussion items, from the students of approximately the same age as the teenagers on your beach, is the concern first over the utter lack of information being provided to the “hobby drone” market and second the arrogance (and utter lack of situational awareness) by their peers.

  • I know of people in this age group who have taken the 400′ altitude restriction off of their quadcopter (it’s easily removed on most brands through software), and routinely fly up into the thousands of feet. This is doubly scary, as most of my city is inside of an MOA with a high level of T38 touch & go practice at our airfield. The attitude among these quad operators is that it’s “your job as a pilot to avoid my drone”. They honestly don’t care if they take an aircraft down, as long as they get good video of it. None have an FAA ID number on their quad, and they refuse to get one. I’ve heard it many times over the last 15 or so years, the attitude is that “nobody can tell me what I can and can’t do”.

  • Like the commenter above, I am both Private Pilot and an RC Modeler. I own and operate my own Bonanza and I also fly numerous types of model airplanes. The rules the FAA is proposing because of these drones is going to kill entire disciplines of the model aviation hobby. RC sailplanes and turbine jets are the first to come to mind as neither can be practically or safely operated continuously under 400 feet. But the folks that fly pattern contests will also be impacted.

    I absolutely agree something must be done to stop these dangerous and completely irresponsible drone operators from causing disastrous outcomes. But there are ways to do it without killing model aviation also. The simplest way I can think of is to first chart know model flying sites on sectionals, just like skydiving sites are today. Second, give those sites a small circle where RC airplanes can be operated above 400’. Something simple like within a 0.25 mile radius around that published field, models can operate to 1000’ or 1500’ AGL. Full scale aircraft will always have the right away, but again, just like skydive operations, folks will know we are there.

    At the end of the day, model aviation has sparked the passion of many folks to seek careers in the aviation field or to become real pilots. It certainly did for me. It is also a way for those that can no longer keep a medical Or can’t afford the high cost of owning or renting a plane, to keep connected to a community they love so much.

    RC aircraft have a long history of safely operating in the national airspace (before drones) and have significant, historical benefits for all of aviation and the space program. That isn’t changing. What has changed is this new crop of reckless folks flying these automated drones in ways that create hazards for everyone and that is what the FAA needs to stop. But killing or severely hampering RC Airplanes isn’t the answer. Even the EAA agrees.

    https://generalaviationnews.com/2020/01/21/eaa-warns-of-detrimental-impact-of-proposed-drone-id-rule-on-model-and-manned-aviation

    • Absolutely agree Josh. I’m with you in experience and what you say is right on. I had my first drone encounter at 2,000 AGL over Kirkland last year. Just a quick glance and then I lost visual on it. I’ve been a modeler since 1975, a PP since 1982. RC Modelers were safety conscious and still are. But the drone hobby has attracted a whole different attitude than those of us who built balsa and Monokote. I dare say, the attitude is simply society at the moment, not relating to RC. I find the same slippage in full scale aviation away from group oriented safety norms and toward individualism.

      Please write a comment about the FAA NOTAM about the proposed RC model and drone rules. They are going way too far and the AMA and EAA are trying to find a reasonable solution that doesn’t hurt the innocent hobbyist. How they are going to fund enforcement without killing the hobby is beyond my financial imagination.

  • We all have activities we enjoy that mean the world to us. I’m a private pilot and an avid hobbyist pilot of radio controlled fixed wing models. I dont fly full scale anymore but I get my fix of flying through my models. We grew up with responsibility in flying with the help and membership in the Academy of Aeronautics and local clubs. I’m not blind to the problems of the drone popularity and misuses and I recognize the dangers to full scale pilots and planes but I disagree with my fixed wing planes being seen as a single UAS category. I would ask current pilots how many times have they ever had a problem with fixed wing models causing them a problem? I’m venturing a guess never. But I’m about to see my pleasure of flying ended permanently in a short time with the FAA’s plans and restrictions. Our hobby and full scale flying have lived together in the sky safely for many decades without the problems that exist with hobby drones these days. If it’s the drones that are the problem then work on that problem by itself, not just everything that a hobbyist might fly. Dont take away my love of flying in the only way I have now. Please FAA take the time to figure this out correctly so we can all use the airspaces safely.

  • My error in the above comment. It should have said I disagree with my fixed wing models being lumped together with drones as a single UAS category. The should be viewed seperately.

      • Tom, (YARS)

        Traditional RC airplanes require a smooth surface to take off and land, and are limited by their radios to a relatively small radius around the operator. Since the aircraft must be controlled by the operator at all times, line of sight operation is ensured, and it requires a skilled operator to avoid going home with a broken model.

        Drones differ in that they contain GPS, and often video cameras which allow non line of sight operation via a smartphone. The quadcopter variety are mostly computer stabilized, and will fly themselves, (and hover) with little operator input. Some quadcopters are also capable of dramatic rates of climb or descent. Some drone radio control packages are capable of long distance operation.

  • I live in a state that has experienced a large number of reports of large numbers (up to 30) of large UAS (6′ across) flying in formation over large areas after dark. Caused much speculation. The latest open source reports speculate it is the USAF using drones for ICBM site security. The Air Force was contacted and didn’t acknowledge it is them, but hasn’t denied it either. I did see a local news interview with local helicopter air ambulance pilot saying he was concerned about it. As a retired USAF air traffic control officer, ICBM officer, and private pilot, I can see all sides of this. UAS and manned flight safety is a tough issue. Irresponsible civilian operators are a problem, and I believe the JUASCOE, if it still existed, could have helped with the DoD not potentially causing danger while accomplishing the mission. There needs to be effective communication and a well thought out plan. Also believe there should be some appropriate and serious consequences for violators.

    https://gazette.com/military/colorado-drone-mystery-sightings-finally-might-be-solved/article_c8d375be-2e6f-11ea-85b7-2335e1d42476.html

  • Interesting debate. As a pilot and a retired lawyer got to ask, we just forced ADS-B on a whole bunch of folks in the name of safety. It would seem similar restrictions might be in order here on the drone flying folks.

    This whole ‘I can do what ever I want’ attitude needs to be nipped in the butt sooner rather than later.

  • I also see them within class D airspace. I’m a member of the drone community and got an email notice of great places to fly.
    One is directly in the path of a departure and arrival corridors for helicopters at my airport. One that we have to fly at 500 AGL…
    Drones must have ADS-B with a special tag noting a special danger.

  • I, too, have had conversations with young people who are operating UAMs. Initially, most did it for fun, then started to make a few bucks by doing aerial photos and videos for friends or family members who were realtors, home inspectors or wanted some interesting, non-traditional shots of outdoor events. Each time, when asked about airspace rules, they would acknowledge that they knew there were rules. However, without admitting they knew the actual rules, every one of them indicated they broke the rules (interesting dichotomy – or situational ethics) and really didn’t care. They simply didn’t see the risk to aircraft that carry people.

  • My encounter with amateur drone operators (not pilots, unless you have your certificate) was one of, I can’t believe that they don’t understand the difference in their “operating” and someone “Flying”. My place of employment is within 1.8 miles of Rwy 24 approach corridor at KBMG Class D with operating tower. After hours from the parking lot a fellow employee drone / owner / operator was showing of his new toy, a 4 motor-bladed copter with iPad, camera and the whole bit. It was really intriguing and the technology was awesome and a small crowd was there to see this. I thought it would be operated just around the P-lot and low to the ground. This was not the case and the operator began showing how far and high it would go. I am a GA PP certificate holder since 2007 and I’m very familiar with my home base airport so I very calmly explained that he should probably not go very high or not let the craft get out of sight. His reaction was a smirk and a grin and said he could see where it was by watching the image on the iPad. I reiterated with emphasis that he was operating in the approach corridor to the airport and it could become dangerous if any aircraft were approaching. His remark was, “I don’t see any airplanes”. The conversation got a little intense and that I was being paranoid. My response was that, you should be paranoid because if you cause an accident you could be held liable. There were no rules at the time and this was the given excuse to continue. I was not popular and was considered a killjoy. A few days later during conversation my explanation was that there is a difference in Operating a Drone and Flying an Aircraft. The difference is that there are PEOPLE flying in those aircraft and you are in a controlled airspace. Since then I have little conversation about that day as time has proven the need for controls on these. I Rest my Case.

  • This effort reminds me of Gun Control. The people who are causing the problems are not going to be affected. They will just go on their merry way doing whatever they want while the honest rule following citizen gets screwed yet again. And these gov’t people are the one’s you want to deal with regarding health care??? Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *