Drones: 700,000 Problems?

The Consumer Electronics Association has projected that drone sales in the United States would reach 700,000 for the 2015 calendar year. Could these be the source of 700,000 problems?

The Consumer Electronics Association has projected that drone sales in the United States would reach 700,000 for the 2015 calendar year. More formally known as unmanned aerial systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft; could these be the source of 700,000 problems?

Considering that regulations concerning drone operation are lagging behind its proliferation, and that this year’s projected sales would represent a 63% increase over last year’s, there is growing safety concerns by both pilots and regulators.

President and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Brian Wynne said that “all aviators are worried about hitting anything in the air. That’s basically what we always worry about.”

So far, and thankfully so, there has been no collisions between aircraft and drones, but there has been a growing number of close calls.

In a story published on Forbes.com, drones were characterized as “surface-to-air missiles capable of taking down airliners.” The article did admit that that statement was a bit of an overstatement, but is that really so?

Well, the FAA which warns that there could be as much as 1 million drones under Christmas trees this year, thinks that is just a matter of time before one of those fun little toys take down a $100 million passenger jet carrying 200 people. And that is a big problem.

The FAA however is being proactive by launching an education effort aimed at drone manufacturers and retailers. Walmart, a huge retailer of the drone, will host an FAA representative at an upcoming sales staff meeting to emphasize the importance of providing sufficient warnings and operational advice to consumers buying drones.

Despite safety concerns, some are saying that the kind of drones being sold by retailers like Walmart lack the size, range and technical capabilities to be a serious danger to aircraft. My guess is that we don’t want to find this out the wrong way.

The Forbes.com article went on to say:

True, a 2.5-pound drone flying at a height of 300 feet could do damage to a very low flying Cessna 150, or perhaps a helicopter, flying at 60 to 125 miles per hour. But hundreds of veteran pilots have commented online this week that toy drones are no match for even small private airplanes and helicopters. The two worst-case scenarios thrown out so far – a drone smashing into the Plexiglas windscreen of a helicopter and one slamming into the propeller of a small single-engine plane – would be quite disturbing for those aboard the airplanes. But such incidents would be both extremely unlikely and very survivable.

And should such a drone ever get near a commercial aircraft it would have to be below 300 feet, which means the drone would have to flying through the approach or departure path of a plane at a commercial airport. In that case the solution is not regulating the drone, which already has an extremely limited flight range and altitude, but doing a better job of keeping the operator off airport property. To have a drone be in such a position the operator would have to be within a couple hundred yards of an active runway.

What some experts are saying, theoretically, is that the more sophisticated drones designed for commercial and governmental use could cause significant problems for aircraft. Perhaps this class of drones should be considered for registration, licensing and tracking by regulators.

There is also a growing concern with drone users that have ill intent – a criminal, a psycho or a terrorist – who may intentionally attack a passenger aircraft.

Drones are here to stay and apart from recreational use, they have been used in all kinds of applications including law enforcement, farming, environmental monitoring and by utility companies. Amazon is also working on a drone program for the delivery of their merchandise.

What will eventually happen with the proliferation of over-the-counter drones is left to be seen, but the Consumer Electronics Association projects the by the year 2025, there will be more than 1 million drone flights every day.

Can we mitigate the hazards of drones sharing the same airspace with manned aircraft? The clock is ticking.

About Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, a career air traffic controller with over 30 years of industry experience. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from around the aviation world. A post titled “13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller” written in 2010 went viral and established me as the unofficial ambassador of ATC.

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