A SZ DJI Technology Co. Phantom 3 drone flies into the face of a crash test dummy during unmanned aerial systems (UAS) test experiments on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. There is little disagreement that the small- and medium-sized drones flooding the U.S. market can cause serious injury or even death in a worst-case scenario. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
By Michael Goldstein
Drones are everywhere. The Los Angeles Police Department today got approval from a civilian review panel to deploy drone patrollers to “protect and serve” by collecting data during high-risk situations or searches without risking officer safety. (No armed drones need apply.) Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration granted CNN the first waiver for unlimited drone flights above crowds. CNN and its technology partner have developed a 1.4 pound drone that will supposedly “break into harmless smaller pieces” in a crash. Amazon too is doing its part, flying heroic drones through rural Australian skies to deliver critically-needed burritos.
Anyone who has seen Sully knows the danger flying objects in the flight path of an aircraft present. But Professor Javid Bayandor, director of the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids Lab at Virginia Tech, told Popular Mechanics, “Impacts from drones are not the same as impact of birds…Birds can disintegrate relatively easily…A drone can be like a rock going through the engine.”
Now, what is believed to be the first collision between a commercial aircraft and a drone has taken place in North America.
On October 12, a twin-prop SkyJet plane carrying six passengers was at about 1500 feet on approach to Jean Lesage airport in Quebec City, Canada. As the plane went into its final descent, the pilots saw something, then heard a bang. Informing the control tower they had hit a drone, they declared an emergency but went on to land safely. Damage was limited to a few scratches on the left wing.
“This should not have happened, that drone should not have been there, and it’s important to point out that aircraft are particularly vulnerable when they’re on final approach,” Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said. Police searched for but did not find the small drone.
Last week, another drone operator was not so fortunate. He was issued a citation by Petaluma, California police for operating a drone in the vicinity of Petaluma Airport, where firefighting aircraft operations were taking place.
Canada, the United States, Britain, and other countries are reporting increased numbers of drone encounters. Not surprising, as analyst firm Gartner Group says almost three million drones will be produced globally in 2017, up 39 percent over 2016. Gartner is referring to both commercial and larger personal drones which need to be registered with the FAA. If consumer electronics drones are counted, the number is even larger. The Consumer Technology Association said that in 2016, 2.4 million hobbyist drones were sold, up 112% over 2015.
The drone explosion has resulted in a new crop of 800,000 drone operators registered with the FAA, a requirement for owners of drones weighing over half a pound. The FAA warns “unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.” The agency is working with drone manufacturers on a “Know Before You Fly” campaign, to educate drone operators about the rules. Otherwise, “The FAA encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to help discourage this dangerous, illegal activity.” Operating rules include staying at least five miles from airports, keeping in line of sight, flying under 400 feet, keeping speed under 100mph, flying only during the day and yielding “right of way to manned aircraft.”
The FAA now gets more than 100 reports of unmanned aircraft sightings from pilots, citizens and law enforcement per month. However, Popular Science claims that only 3.4% of pilot-reported drone encounters were near misses or close calls. Richard Hanson, President of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, told the magazine, “Back in the 70s and 80s, everything pilots saw was a UFO. Now everything they see is a drone.”
Despite regulation, nightmares of rogue teenagers with $99 drones bringing down aircraft by accident persists.
On September 21, a US Army Black Hawk flying at about 500 feet was hit by a drone flying illegally over Staten Island, New York. “It struck on the left side of the fuselage.,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buccino, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne, told the NY Post. “One blade was damaged, dented in two spots and requires replacement and there is a dented window.” There were no injuries, and the pilots were able to land the Black Hawk safely.
Police and the military investigated the crash, but no drone ‘pilot’ was found. The National Transportation Safety Board announced it would investigate, the first NTSB investigation of a drone vs. aircraft crash.
A possible solution to prevent drones and planes from meeting by accident is geofencing. Geofencing, essentially an invisible barrier that tells compliant drones to stay away from a particular area, has been set up in drone “no-fly zones”. One such is the D.C. Special Flight Rules Area, within a 30-mile radius of Reagan Airport. The fence instruction is a software download from the drone manufacturer. But not every drone is geofencing-complaint, and neither is every drone operator.
Already, a woman was seriously injured by a falling drone last year in Quebec, a drone crashed through a Manhattan woman’s 27th-floor window, and a New Jersey man was arrested for accidentally crashing a drone into the Empire State Building.
Many find flying drones fun and exciting. But with great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) put it in Spiderman. Ultimately, it will be up to every drone operator to take their responsibility seriously.