Airports were shut down for drone threats and have been all over the news. Heathrow and Glasgow were shut down by eco-activists using drones to gain attention. Other airports, Newark, Dubai, Dublin have been shut down for security concerns over drone sightings close to the airport.
The British government is moving to approve more strict restrictions over drone use, as well as giving the police and law enforcement more powers to seize, search and control civilian drones.
Are concerns well-founded? Is the government overreacting to threats of tiny drones? Do we need more regulation and police power or civil voluntary policies?
Today we’ll discuss many of these topics, and try to shed some light on some important issues involved.
Drones getting more popular
Drones are getting more popular, and rightfully so. They have many legitimate uses. From farming to photography, amateur recreation to ecological conservation, they provide many benefits that no other technology can. According to drone deploy industry report, construction site safety is improved by 55%, using drones. So far, 133 lives have been saved, thanks to drones. 1000 acres of farmland can be inspected in a single day by a drone. Surveying time for a 12-acre property is reduced to 2 hours from 100 hours, using a single drone. And homes with aerial pictures are sold 68% faster. And as the demand increases, and so do the number of drones flying in the sky.
In the US alone, according to the FAA, there were around 1.1 million drones by the end of 2017. That number is estimated to reach 2 million by the end of 2019. With this growth rate, by the end of 2022, FAA estimates there will be 2.4 million drones in the skies of USA.
Globally, there were already more than 3 million drones in 2017, and FAA estimates there will be more than 7 million drones, all over the world, by 2020.
To put things into perspective, there are 23,000-39,000 airplanes in the world today.
Of course, as numbers grow, so do concerns. Drones can invade privacy, mess with radio waves, cause property damage, and even, cause aircraft to crash.
In this article, we will mostly be focusing on the last risk, damage to aircraft and risk of crashing aircraft.
Drone damage vs bird damage
But aren’t aircraft already designed to withstand birds crashing into airplanes? Birds in the air can reach a mass of 4-8 pounds, and many times, planes fly into birds, sometimes even flocks of birds at full speed. And most consumer drones are much smaller than that, and a small drone in a big sky doesn’t really pose too much of a risk, does it?
Well, the reality is more complicated than that. First of all, drones are much different than birds. Birds are made of feathers, meat, and bones, drones are made of plastic and metal. Drones, therefore, have a more concentrated mass and have a more rigid structure. Further, there is always a possibility that radio signals from drones can mess with electronic or communication systems of a plane. Also, birds do have senses that generally makes them avoid large and noisy planes. While drones also have collision avoidance systems, they usually are designed to detect stationary objects or other drones, and not planes flying at full speed.
While there has been no reported plane crashes due to drones yet, as the numbers increase, so do the risk of collusion. Even if a small drone is unlikely to cause a large airliner to crash, a drone hitting the engine can still cause millions of dollars of material damage. Windscreens can be another vulnerable area.
However, there are 10 billion birds in the USA airspace alone, with thousands of collisions with aircraft reported each year, and none yet with a drone. So far, drone collision with aircraft is only a hypothetical risk, while bird damage is the #1 actual risk factor for planes.
Rules and regulations
Rules and regulations have already been around for a long time. Main FAA guidelines are simple:
- Fly your drone at or below 400 feet.
- Keep your drone within line of sight at all times
- Never fly around other aircraft, esp around airports
- Do not fly over groups of people
- Do not fly over group events such as over stadiums or concerts
- Do not fly over emergency response events such as fires or earthquakes
- Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
- Be aware of airspace requirements, such as no-fly zones.
Now, some of these are common sense. Some others, create debate among users. For example, hobby pilots flying using first-person view cameras argue the line of sight rule is unnecessary. Some other rules, change according to country and local laws, such as how far away from an airport you must be to fly a drone. These make things difficult to manage, as the number of drones and drone pilots increases over time. Not everyone drone pilot can be %100 aware of all the requirements, and where the boundaries lie.
Now, of course, technology also brings solutions to such problems. There are smartphone and drone apps that make a simple task out of being aware of the guidelines, rules and regulations in your area. In the USA, the B4UFLY app is a free app that is developed according to FAA and government guidelines and is freely available.
Different apps also exist for different countries and locations, like AirMap, OpenSky, and Drone Assist, as well as apps specific to each manufacturer.
While there are a lot of concerns about the increasing number of drones in the sky threatening public safety, so far all concerns about drone collision with planes are hypothetical, while birds crashing planes are very real and still #1 cause of real concern.
As with any public policy decision, making a rational decision about drones and safety will require more data, more input from everyone involved, and time to see which policies result in the desired results.