FAA rules alone won’t prevent a drone-jet collision
By Robert P. Mark, reprinted from The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2014
(Photo -Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)
This holiday season, one of the hottest-selling toys has been the quadcopter drone, a tiny remote-controlled helicopter that carries a small video camera anyplace the ground-based operator sends it. While some of these brightly colored quads weigh less than a pound, they can still deliver a pedestrian a pretty ugly whack in the side of the head if the operator loses control.
Imagine for a moment, though, that the drone is larger, say a machine that weighs as much as 55 pounds. And imagine that instead of colliding with a pedestrian that 55-pound drone finds its way into the engine or windshield of a commercial airliner.
Remember the Canada geese that were sucked into the engines of that US Airways airplane in 2009 shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport? Those geese that forced pilots Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles to put their airplane down in the Hudson River weighed only 9 to 12 pounds each.
Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to develop rules that will allow commercially flown drones as heavy as 55 pounds to share the same airspace as airplanes carrying people.
This is a really bad idea, despite the fact that the FAA plans to restrict drones to altitudes less than 400 feet above the ground.
A recent AP poll, however, indicated that Americans are concerned about their safety when drones are nearby — and with good reason. Today there is no way to prevent drones from colliding with airplanes — despite the fact that modern jets are equipped with electronic systems that notify pilots when another aircraft wanders too close. Those aircraft systems can’t see drones. Technologists say that a “sense-and-avoid” system to make drones move out of the way of an approaching airplane is years from a practical rollout too.Drones are drawing so much attention these days because they represent commercial opportunities unmatchable by manned airplanes and helicopters. Law enforcement drones can stay aloft for 24 hours at a time because their computerized pilots don’t need a lunch break. Search-and-rescue drones can be dispatched in weather conditions that would keep manned aircraft grounded.
But the FAA is under tremendous pressure right now from drone manufacturers, as well as businesses that want to operate them, to do something — anything — that will allow drones access to civil airspace. Until the FAA figures out how to keep drones away from airplanes full of people, though, commercial drones are banned from the skies over the U.S.
Unfortunately, the lack of rules or FAA enforcement hasn’t stopped hundreds of drone pilots from recklessly flying their machines anyway, often incredibly close to airports and aircraft full of people. Anyone can purchase a drone and begin flying immediately. Drone operators don’t need a license, nor are they required to possess any understanding of the national airspace system they’re operating within — the same airspace where passenger-carrying aircraft are flying.
A month ago the FAA released a report highlighting nearly 200 separate safety incidents involving drones; while not all were potentially catastrophic, there were plenty of instances when drone operators either intentionally flew their machines close to airports and manned aircraft — or when drones got away from their operators and flew off for parts unknown, with no person controlling them.
In November, the pilots of two separate airliners, a Boeing 747 and a smaller Boeing 737, both on approach to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, reported close calls with drones while flying over Nassau County, N.Y. Luckily the drones missed the airliners, but that cute little toy was reportedly cruising at 3,000 feet above the ground when the 747 went sailing past, traveling in the other direction.
While the FAA plans to release draft regulation about drones soon, rules alone will not prevent a midair collision. The only chance passengers have is to hope the FAA can demand enough training for drone operators before their drones take flight — enough to make those operators realize the risk they pose to everyone flying around them.
But without a training requirement for drone operators, as well as an FAA rule with enough teeth to make reckless operators realize the risks they’re putting the rest of us in, airline passengers will soon have a much greater chance of being knocked out of the sky by a drone than by a flock of passing geese.
Robert Mark is a commercial pilot and publisher of the aviation blog Jetwhine.com.