A QF-4 unmanned fighter jet. Image: USAF
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that, back in March, a US Airways jet nearly collided with a drone near Tallahassee, Florida. That much we know. The facts of the case are still a mystery, so it's premature to ground the whole industry over it.
The FAA has been looking for a case to justify its current drone policy, which states that extremely cautious commercial integration of drones into the national airspace is the correct way forward. The agency has found that case, with an assist from someone in St. Louis. The story has taken off—it was the most read article over the weekend at CNN and has spurred coverage all over the place.
But we really have no idea what happened in Tallahassee, and it’s irresponsible to jump to conclusions about whether it was a drone hobbyist or not. That distinction is important, because the alternative explanation is that it was a US Air Force military drone that malfunctioned, and therefore has nothing to do with commercial drones at all.
Jim Williams, the man in charge of the FAA’s small unmanned aircraft systems integration team, announced at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo that there was a “near-mid air collision incident” in Florida in March. The venue and greater context of the speech is important here—Williams was specifically talking about why it has taken the FAA so long to develop commercial drone rules, and suggested that “the risk for a small UAS to be ingested into a pilot’s engine is very real. Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially with that lithium battery, going into a high speed engine. The results would be catastrophic."
He's right, and it's extremely fortunate that the drone and the plane didn't actually crash.
But Williams is already suggesting, given the rest of the content in his speech, that the incident could have an impact on how the small commercial UAS rules are written, when they’re coming, and what they are. A source at a major US government contractor and drone manufacturer told me that “the path forward seems murky” after the Tallahassee incident.
But was it even a hobbyist drone? We have no idea. The simplest explanation is often the best—it very easily could have been a military drone that the pilot saw. The facts of the case suggest it’s at least a possibility, and there are some things that at least suggest that the drone wasn't necessarily operated by a hobbyist.
For one, the near miss was never entered into the FAA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System database, which is very weird—the database is considered comprehensive. Secondly, the near collision was reportedly with a model that looks like an F-4 Phantom jet, which is simply not a very popular type of model aircraft to be flying. However, an unmanned variant of the aircraft, the QF-4, is used less than 20 miles away from the reported incident by the US military at Tyndall Air Force Base.
The incident reportedly occurred at about 2,300 feet in altitude, which is extremely high for a fixed-wing model aircraft to be flying. It would have likely had to have been operated using first person view, meaning a camera would have had to have been hooked up to the model, making it even less likely that it was the type of plane involved in the incident. Fixed-wing military models are considered poor candidates to hook cameras up to, because they're already pretty unstable in flight—adding more weight simply isn't a great idea.
Then, consider that the USAF has lost control of those aircraft in this same area several times in the last year, the incident allegedly occurred with an unpopular type of model aircraft, painted in a camouflage color, at a high altitude, and there’s at least the possibility that the pilot mistook the size of the plane, if not its color and style.
A spokesperson for the FAA told me that “neither the UAS nor the pilot could be identified.” He told me he’s not sure if the FAA has looked into the possibility that it was a military aircraft, but its size “sounds like a model aircraft … some of those are incredibly sophisticated.”
At this point, the investigation appears to be over, according to what the FAA told me.
But if this was a military aircraft, it’s a case of the government using a government screwup to support its position on an unrelated matter. As it stands, the FAA, the media, and the public don’t have nearly enough information to make sweeping claims about what happened. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the planes didn't crash. We can look at it as an unfortunate close call, a run-in with a UFO, something that happens all the time.
If that drone came from the USAF, the FAA's beef should be with the military, not the industry. Until it knows either way, it should shy away from using this incident to make its case against commercial drones.