Drones are exciting and fun to fly, and that’s a big part of the reason that people forget the dangers consumer drones can pose. I’m not talking about personal injury in this case, but rather the very real danger that drones can pose to other aircraft, specifically passenger aircraft.
Over Staten Island, in New York City, a US Army helicopter and a drone collided. The collision caused damage to a number of systems and while the drone was destroyed and the helicopter stayed aloft, the incident caused various agencies to scramble.
One warm evening this fall a pair of U.S. Army UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters cruised low over New York City’s Staten Island, providing security for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual meeting in nearby Manhattan. Just after sunset a shoe box–size airborne object collided with one of the choppers, damaging its main rotor blade, window frame and transmission system. Inspection at a nearby airfield revealed evidence of something that had never happened before—a civilian drone had plowed into a crewed craft in U.S. airspace. That sent the Army, the National Transportation Safety Board and other government agencies scrambling to investigate how and why this had happened.
Incidents like the one described above are having a very real effect on passenger aircraft pilots.
Pilots already take the potential for drone collisions very seriously, sometimes putting potentially lifesaving missions on hold for fear of such a strike. In August firefighters battling a large blaze on Montana’s Rice Ridge temporarily shut down helicopter operations when an unauthorized drone was spotted in the sky nearby. The following month government agencies issued terse warnings for civilians to keep their drones far away from low-flying aircraft being used to locate and evacuate Hurricane Harvey victims in Houston. It remains unclear, however, whether the risk of a drone collision is big enough to outweigh the need for those aircraft to carry out their missions.
Low-flying helicopters—such as those conducting search-and-rescue operations—likely face the most serious risk of collision because they often occupy the same airspace as multirotor consumer and commercial drones, says Ian Horsfall, professor of armor systems at Cranfield University and the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom. “Not only is there a threat of poorly controlled drones being in the wrong place, but also the nature of helicopter flight is such that [even] a properly licensed and piloted drone might be hit by a helicopter that strays into its airspace,” or vice versa, Horsfall says. The Army Blackhawk over Staten Island had been flying at an altitude of about 150 meters when it was hit. Hobbyist drones are barred from most parts of New York City but are permitted in some locations—including Staten Island’s LaTourette Park—as long as they stay below about 120 meters.
Fixed-wing aircraft may not spend as much time in quadcopter-accessible airspace as helicopters, but they could sustain severe damage from a collision. Barely a month after the Staten Island incident, a drone smashed into a twin-engine propeller plane near Quebec City. The Beechcraft King Air A100 aircraft was approaching a runway at Jean Lesage International Airport when its left wing collided with the drone at just above 450 meters. A ground inspection later revealed only minor harm: scratches on the wing’s top surface and scrape marks on a de-icing system. But Marc Garneau, Canada’s Minister of Transport, said during a press conference following the incident that the collision could have had “catastrophic” results if the drone had crashed through the cockpit window or damaged an engine.
What makes this most troubling is the examples provided above, the incident at Staten Island, at Jean Lesage International Airport and during Hurricane Harvey, aren’t the only ones. As drones become more popular, it’s inevitable that we will see more of these incidents, all other variables remaining the same.
Here are just a few more examplers. In the UK, at the Endinburgh Airport, we have another set of incidents.
Drones were flown close to planes near Edinburgh Airport twice in three days, it has emerged.
On July 30, the pilot of an Airbus A319 spotted a drone with two rotors as he flew in over Cramond, to the north west of the city, to land at the airport.
A report from the UK Airprox Board said the drone passed within 100 metres of the plane off its right hand side.
Three days earlier, on July 27, the first officer on board a Boeing 757 saw a drone to the left of his aircraft at a distance of around 500 metres.
Also in the UK, at the Gatwick Airport. In this case, an amazing visualization was created to show just how damaging the event was.
A new data visualisation has shown the scale of the disruption caused when a drone gets too close to a major airport.
Footage generated from flight path data shows planes struggling to land at Gatwick on July 2 this year, when air traffic controllers stopped all take-offs and landings because of a drone sighting.
Dozens of flights were delayed, and some redirected entirely because of the closure. The footage, generated from raw data by air traffic monitor NATS, shows how pre-determined holding patterns near the runway quickly filled and then overflowed.
This map shows the chaos that ensues when a drone flies too close to an airport
If you haven’t seen the visualization yet, it’s very interesting.
And last but not least, back in the United States, we’ve got another near miss at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport. That’s an avoidable event folks because in the US, it’s illegal to fly within a 5 mile radius of an airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating after a drone was spotted as a jetliner approached New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.
United Airlines Flight 135 was arriving from Switzerland on Sunday when the crew of the Boeing 767 reported a near miss with the drone at 850 feet (259 meters).
Previous articles (like this one and this one) I’ve written on subject have been more positive, and while I wish I could continue that trend, it seems that the facts no longer support it. This trend is here, and we need to be aware of it, and as a community address it.
Back in 2016, I wrote an article titled “Drone Versus Airplane: What’s The Risk?“, in which I cited a George Mason University study predicting “One damaging incident will occur no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg drone flight time”. I wonder if they still consider their assessment accurate.
At Drone Universities, we strongly believe safe flying is a core skill required by any drone operator, commercial or recreational; that’s why we cover it at length in our drone university courses. Our hands-on, drone training courses give our students the opportunity to interact with our instructors in real-time. Regardless of your goal, passing the FAA Part 107, improving your aerial photography skills, or learning GIS, our instructors will teach you how to do it both safely and legally.