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Pilots Reporting Near Misses with Drones

California Plane Crash

Photo from Flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

We are entering the age of drones. It seems like only yesterday that cutting edge drone technology was introduced to the public and only a select few individuals and companies had access to working prototypes. Today, any gadget enthusiast with disposable income can easily get their hands on one. In fact, you can purchase a functional drone online or at a hobby store for as low as $20!

Although drones are associated with modern warfare and surveillance, they can be used for more fun, casual, and even creative purposes – and hobbyists are constantly finding new and inventive ways to utilize their drones. Aspiring filmmakers, YouTube creators, and photographers are shooting high-quality, stabilized photos and video footage with drones that come with camera attachments. Others are holding races and formation flying contests. Some are even creating drone dance routines!

However, drones carry a host of issues as well as innovations, as it is with all new technologies. Never before has the public had such open accessibility to air space and to the extent that drone technology allows. The average store-bought drone can fly thousands of feet from where the controller is standing and ascend more than 10,000 feet into the air. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advises model aircraft operators (this includes drones) to keep their crafts less than 400 feet above the ground and to avoid operating within five miles of an airport without permission. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, some drone operators are breaking this rule and consequently causing problems for pilots, airport officials, and local authorities.

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Just recently on August 12, a drone almost hit a medical helicopter that was transporting a patient to a hospital in Fresno. The helicopter was flying 1,000 feet above the ground around 1 p.m., when the pilot spotted a large drone in its flight path. Thankfully, the pilot was able to avoid the drone, missing a potentially catastrophic collision by about 20 feet.

This is not an isolated incident. The FAA is receiving near-daily reports of drones flying near airplanes and helicopters or close to airports without permission.

Drones have the capability to cause crashes if one collides with a plane or gets sucked into an engine. Smaller models, particularly ones made of plastic or other composites, are usually not picked up by radar, so it is not always possible for air traffic controllers to spot them before they become a problem.

Before drones become a facet of everyday life – more than a million have already been sold worldwide in the past few years – the government will have to figure out how to effectively regulate drones and deter operators from misusing them. Otherwise, we may see a tragic plane accident involving a drone in the future.

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