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Stop the drone panic
In an industry gripped with fear about hobbyist drone
missuse, is the industry overreacting?
By John Zimmerman, originally
published on Air Facts Journal
For an industry that’s usually obsessed
with “risk management,” aviation sure
isn’t using much of it when it comes to
drones. The constant drumbeat of stories
about close encounters between airplanes
and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can
be described as nothing short of a panic—
with pilots and non-pilots alike convinced
that a drone disaster is looming.
Flying Magazine has chronicled the drones
disrupting wildfire aircraft operations
in California and AOPA has
written about about “chillingly
dangerous” encounters with
unmanned aircraft. That’s not
to mention the non-aviation media,
which is positively hyperventilating.
Was it a drone
And yet, I am unable to find a single
verified story of a drone colliding with
an aircraft in the US. There is one event
that happened in Afghanistan in 2011,
and there was a story about a Piper that
might have hit a quadcopter over Illinois
recently – but it turned out to be a bird.
This is the latest example of the
“safety fad” problem in aviation, a
type of industry-wide ADHD. For a
few years in the mid-2000s, runway
incursions were going to kill us all.
Reports of these events skyrocketed almost
overnight, and serious FAA presentations
warned of huge fatalities if something
didn’t change. Millions of dollars were
spent on technology and training.
But then runway incursions seemed to
fade, and bird strikes were the next
big problem. As the FAA reports, “The
overall number of reported strikes
for all aircraft and airport types has
increased 6.2 fold, from 1,851 in
1990 to a record 11,399 in 2013.”
Does anyone really think the number
of birds increased 600% in 20 years?
The problem is clear: when we look for
something we usually find it, even when
it isn’t there. A number of supposedly
close encounters with drones sound
awfully vague, and could easily be
balloons or birds. Even some situations
that did involve drones probably weren’t
as “near miss” as the pilots think. But when
all you have is a hammer, the whole world
looks like a nail. Just ask UFO enthusiasts.
It’s not a bold prediction to say that a
midair between a manned and an unmanned
aircraft will happen (eventually). What’s
harder to predict is the frequency of
these collisions and the severity of them.
If you’re flying a Cessna for a $100
hamburger, what are the odds you really
will hit a drone? If you do, will it cause
serious damage or be fatal? How about
for a Boeing that weighs 950,000 pounds?
The bird strike example is a relevant one
here – while there were over 11,000
bird strikes in 2013, only 605 caused
aircraft damage, and none of them were
fatal. Is there any reason to believe a
two pound quadcopter would be much
different? The large unmanned airplanes
are tightly controlled and on flight
plans, so these under-five pound hobby
machines are the only legitimate threat.
All this hysteria has a cost. While we’ve
been panicking about drones, dozens
of pilots have died in low level stalls
or VFR-into-IMC accidents. We’ve even
had a real airplane midair, between a
jet and a Cessna in San Diego. None
of these make the nightly news or the
front page of the New York Times, but
all of them present a much more serious
But that’s not the end of the story. The root
of the problem is at the FAA, an agency
that has been paralyzed by the thought
of releasing UAS rules that are
anything less than comprehensive.
It’s a classic case of the top-down,
bureaucratic rule -making process
being unable to adapt to fast-moving
technology. Instead of releasing the
broad outlines of a drone policy
and then iterating, the FAA has
said flatly: “We don’t do betas.”
It’s a great line, but it’s hopelessly
doing a beta on live TV instead;
the FAA is just hiding from it.
Perhaps the FAA’s line should
be from Voltaire: “the perfect is
the enemy of the good.”
This may be starting to
change now, at least slowly.
Proposed UAS rules were
released this year and are, all in all,
pretty sensible. More recently, the
FAA appointed two new people to
senior UAS roles, both with records
of actually getting things done.
practically bans drone flights is just
the most visible knee jerk reaction
at the local level, proof that if you
wait too long politicians will fill the
void with truly awful legislation.
There’s another threat beyond bad
local laws: TFRs. In an effort to
deter drones, these may pop up even
more often as a sort of catch all
prohibition. It’s a blunt instrument,
but it’s the only existing option
for big events. And remember,
all the fancy FAA rules are for
commercial operations; those for
I spend a lot of time flying below
1000 feet, so I am not excited about
hitting a quadcopter. And people who
fly drones around wildfires during a
TFR are flat out stupid; they deserve
no sympathy. But nobody stops flying
because they might hit a bird one
day, and we don’t need to paralyze
our aviation industry because of
an overblown drone threat either.
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