Drones: Delight or Disaster?


Nathan Broman

In August 2011, a military C-130 transport plane collided with a RQ-7 Shadow drone in Afghanistan. The C-130 crew managed to land their aircraft safely, and fortunately no one was hurt. This is the only confirmed midair collision between a manned aircraft and a drone, but such mishaps are now becoming increasingly likely, not only in war-zones, but on the home front.
Small unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs), more commonly know as drones, have become increasingly popular among civilians in the past few years as once military grade technology becomes cheaper and more available. They can be bought ready to fly from companies such as Parrot, 3D Robotics, and DJI for $500 to $3,000. Many are equipped with high definition cameras GPS guided autopilot systems, can be flown from a smartphone or included controller, and have flight times as long as 20 minutes.
As this technology becomes cheaper, more accessible, and easier to use, it also becomes a lot easier for someone to do something stupid with it. Among growing concerns of privacy invasion and terrorism, small drones have become a major threat to manned aircraft. They are too small to show up on radar, and do not carry transponders, devices that identify an aircraft and give positional information to air traffic controllers. According to a article in the Washington Post on August 20th 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released reports of over 700 near-misses between drones and manned aircraft this year, about triple the number from last year. Some incidents occurred at altitudes over 10,000 feet while others involved military aircraft. A collision could be disastrous. A small drone could easily cripple a plane if it were to be sucked into an engine or hit and break the windshield. SUAS news reported an unconfirmed collision between a drone and a twin engine Piper Apache aircraft, which occurred near the Lewis University in Illinois on August 27th, at an altitude of 2,500 feet. The article included a picture of a dent the size of a man’s head in the plane’s tail, but no one knows for sure what hit it. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which represents drone hobbyists, says they have investigated all the reported incidents, and that only a fraction are legit near-misses.
Current FAA regulations prohibit operators from flying drones within five miles of an airport, above 400 feet, or outside their line of sight. Other regulations prohibit drone flights in national parks, near major sporting events, wildfires, and over military installations, prisons and other sensitive facilities. Flying near buildings and over crowds is also discouraged. The FAA restricts commercial use of drones until they can make regulations to safely bring them into US airspace, but the agency has begun some some businesses authorization to do so, known as section 333 exemptions. Leading drone manufacturer DJI has received heavy criticism for marketing their products as “toys” or “gadgets”, misleading people from the fact that they are operating a sophisticated aircraft and encouraging irresponsible use.
Hoping to avoid future midair collisions, engineers have begun working on ways to keep drones away from manned aircraft. Drone manufacturers, including 3D Robotics and DJI, have begun incorporating geofencing into their products. Using information from the onboard GPS, the drone’s flight controller would detect when it was ascending above 400 feet or entering preprogrammed no-fly-zones and respond by automatically landing the drone and refusing to take off again. In an article on the website Hackaday.com, Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3D Robotics, proposed using smartphones controlling the drones to give the all clear before a flight. When an operator opens the drone app, the phone would automatically access data from the cloud and find the current rules of operation for the given time and location. It would then give them a red, yellow, or green light to indicate if it was safe to fly. The project would start with consistent information, such as airports, national parks, and military bases. Changing data would also be added later, such as flight paths of manned aircraft and wildfire locations, where drones can interfere with air tankers and helicopters attempting to fight the blazes. Smartphones could also relay data about the drone’s position into the cloud, further helping avoid collisions. Already, companies such as Airmap and Skyward are building the cloud service. Eventually drones will be able to regulate themselves based on flight information and changing circumstances.
As drones become more popular, it’s only a matter of time before one brings down a manned aircraft. Agencies such as the FAA are divided about the safety of stricter regulations, and the potential for good of this promising new technology. To avoid disaster, manufacturers must develop solutions quickly and users must obey regulations and fly responsibly.