United States: Look! Up In The Sky! It's A Bird…It's A Plane…It's A Drone?

Last Updated: December 16 2015
Article by Jason J. Zummo


It was just past noon on a clear February day as Delta Air Lines Flight 1159 descended to 3,000 feet on final approach to Los Angeles International Airport. The first officer was about to radio air traffic control for landing instructions when an unidentified object slightly ahead of the Boeing 757 jet caught his eye.

"At first I thought it was a large bird soaring towards us," the first officer wrote in a report following the incident. But as it passed outside of the right window, "I very clearly saw a large square-shaped bright red drone with black accents and black propellers." The first officer had it in sight for a few seconds as it flew by in the opposite direction approximately 150 feet away from them.

To be sure, no drone has ever collided with a manned aircraft. But with close encounters becoming more commonplace, many are asking "why these incidents are occurring and what can be done to prevent a potentially catastrophic accident?"

To help answer those questions, Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone recently released a study. The study analyzed records of 921 incidents involving drones and manned aircraft in U.S. national airspace over the past two years. In the report, a variety of factors were analyzed including altitude, distance from airports, drone-to-aircraft proximity, manned aircraft type, drone type, and time of day.

The incidents were divided into two categories. "Close encounters" were defined as incidents where a drone came close enough to a manned aircraft that it met the FAA's definition of a "near midair collision" or close enough that there was a possible danger of collision. On the other hand, "sightings" were defined as when a drone wasspotted above its legal ceiling or in the vicinity of an airport or aircraft, but did not pose a clear potential for a collision.

Of the 921 total incidents, 327 were categorized close encounters and 594 were categorized sightings. Over 90 percent of the incidents occurred above 400 feet, the maximum altitude that the FAA allows drones to fly. Even more striking, a majority of the total incidents occurred within 5 miles of an airport (which is prohibited airspace for all drones regardless of the altitude at which they are flying). These alarming stats raise questions about the effectiveness of the FAA rules and more fundamentally, itsability to enforce those rules.

Other notable findings include 158 incidents in which a drone came within 200 feet of a manned aircraft and 51 incidents in which the proximity was 50 feet or less. Furthermore, pilots had to maneuver to avoid a collision with a drone 28 times. While 90 of the drone close encounters involved commercial aircraft, 38 close encounters involved helicopters.

Solutions to prevent future incidents involving drones are already being developed. Sense-and-avoid systems and mandatory registration requirements were discussed in our earlier articles. Geo-fencing, on the other hand, is a system that uses software to limit where drones can fly such as restricting the users' ability to fly within 5 miles of an airport.

In addition, NASA is developing a UAS Traffic Management System which uses conflict avoidance software. After being integrated into air-traffic control systems, NASA's system could prevent collisions by alerting and re-routing drones.

With the skyrocketing popularity of drones among consumer and commercial users, regulators and policymakers are struggling with how to reap the benefits of UAS technology without undermining safety.

The Bard report provides lawmakers with a greater understanding of close encounters and sightings involving drones and manned aircraft, including the areas of greatest risk and how an accident might occur. More importantly, it highlights ways for making the airspace safer for everyone.

As more drones enter U.S. airspace, a combination of approaches will be needed to prevent incidents that could potentially pose a threat to public safety. Lawmakers and industry regulators should use the information from the report to develop strategies and solutions to address the growing number of potentially dangerous incidents between manned and unmanned aircraft.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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