Hobbyist and commercial drone operations are exploding as different models enter the market. The FAA reports drone sightings to the tune of over 100 per month.
Drone expansion brings conflict with traditional manned aircraft. Drone operators have caused mid-air collisions, near-miss incidents, and other accidents, raising serious safety concerns. At right is a video still of a drone-airplane wing collision by the University of Dayton Research Institute.
Risks to manned flight fall into three general categories: nefarious actors, inexperienced pilots, and off-nominal conditions. Nefarious actors wish to disrupt the air traffic system or crash a drone into a plane. Although most drone operators strive to act safely, their inexperience and existing off-nominal conditions are a continuous threat. New drone operators are unlikely to have the skill or knowledge to conform to regulations. Inevitable off-nominal conditions such as heavy winds or lost-link may cause drones to operate in unintended airspace.
To combat this proliferation of unsafe drone operation, pilots need a robust, system-wide alerting system to increase situational awareness of nearby drone activity.
A Flight for Life pilot working for St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado reportedly told a Denver television station that a drone passed under his helicopter. “A drone just went right under us, probably about 100 feet...What I care about the most is our survival, our ability to do the mission, and do it quickly and safely,” the pilot said. The same week, drones allegedly had been sighted over Sterling Regional MedCenter, raising fears that drones could endanger emergency medical helicopters in the hospital’s airspace. Read the Sterling Journal-Advocate article here.
A suspected drone hit a Los Angeles news helicopter at 1100 feet, damaging the aircraft and forcing an emergency landing. The object blew a hole through the tail of the helicopter. If the object was a drone, it was flying at nearly three times the legal height limit for federal airspace and Los Angeles airspace, both 400 feet. The CNN article mentioned the danger that drones can pose to unsuspecting aircraft and referenced the drone interference with aerial firefighting that occurred during the Maria Fire in California. Read the CNN Alert here.
Two drones entered the area of aerial firefighting of the Maria fire and an additional mountaintop fire in Santa Paula, California in early November, 2019. The drones caused the temporary cessation of the nighttime firefighting. Similarly, a drone interrupted the fighting of the 2015 Lake fire in California. That year, Cal Fire launched a public service campaign to inform drone operators: "If You Fly, We Can't." Read the full Los Angeles Times story here.
A drone delayed firefighting for 30 minutes, during a period of calm conditions considered ideal for firefighting, in Rifle, Colorado's Middle Mamm Creek fire in fall 2019. Read about it here in the Vail Daily.
An Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University report on collision risk with drones is posted here. The report recommends the integration of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability system usage data into aviation information sharing infrastructure to improve awareness of drone activity.
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