The Number of Drones Getting Too Close to Planes Is on the Rise

The FAA released its full archive of reports. While many were not necessarily dangerous, there were some scary close calls.

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Aug 24 2015, 6:30pm

Photo by Robert Emmerich/Flickr

The number of drone sightings and near misses reported by pilots so far this year is nearly triple that of 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And while not all of those encounters were necessarily dangerous (or even involved drones) some of the incidents were awfully close to catastrophe.

On Friday, the FAA released all of its incident reports of drone sightings and near-misses from November 13 of last year to August 20, 2015. Since January, there have been 678 reports, compared to 238 for all of 2014. This is alarming because, as the FAA likes to remind us, if a drone or model airplane were to be sucked into the engine of a commercial jet, the results could be catastrophic.

But there are some caveats to these reports as well. For almost all of the incidents, a drone operator is never identified, making it difficult to confirm whether it was in fact a hobbyist pilot and not a commercial or military drone. There is also a lot of variation in the details and circumstances of the reports, such as pilots who report the object they spotted "might have been" a drone, or others who spotted unmanned aircraft that were within the FAA's guidelines (more than five miles from an airport and flying at less than 400 feet).

The FAA has also landed in murky water in the past for highlighting dangerous "near misses" without much evidence.

"The reports can only be trusted insofar as any preliminary report of an incident can be trusted without further investigation," said Arthur Holland Michel, the founder of Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone. "Sometimes, it is simply a report from a pilot who saw a mysterious object whizz by the cockpit for a split second, and assumes it was a drone. Other reports even say that the unmanned aircraft could have been a kite or a balloon, but it was too far away, or too brief of an encounter, to tell."

Michel and his colleagues at the Center did a quick analysis of the archive to put the reports into perspective. The analysis found that of the 721 incidents (this is the total number, including the tail-end of last year), 295 were "near misses" and 426 were merely sightings. In 531 of the reports, a distance from the nearest airport was included. Of those, 59 percent were within five miles of the airport while 41 percent were more than five miles out.

An approximate altitude for the unmanned aircraft was also recorded for 617 reports, the analysis found. Of those, only 10 percent were flying within the legal limit for recreational drones, with the average altitude 3,275 ft—eight times higher than the 400 ft legal ceiling. More importantly, the analysis found, "in a majority of the cases in which a drone posed a potential danger to manned air traffic, it was flying several times higher than than the legal maximum altitude for civilian drone flights."

And there were a handful of close, risky encounters, including one in-air collision. In April, a pilot flying a propeller plane out of Livermore airport in California felt something hit the plane about ten minutes after take off, and heard "a loud thump," according to the report. When he landed, the pilot inspected the plane and found a three-inch long gouge, "deep enough to take off the first layer of fiberglass." There was also "evidence of impact" to two of the three propellers, but "no blood found anywhere on the aircraft as would have been expected with a bird strike."

Other reports indicated unmanned aircrafts coming as close as 20 feet to a Gulfstream and in July, a military plane reported having to take evasive action to avoid a drone flying at 2,000 feet.

So what's to be done? The FAA already has a number of campaigns to try to raise awareness about the rules for recreational drone pilots. Michel said these new reports could be the catalyst for even stricter regulations, including geofencing to prevent unmanned aircrafts from flying too close to airports.

"The best solution right now seems to be to educate the public about where they can and cannot fly," Michel said.