“Passenger Plane Barely Dodges Drone Above New York” cried a Time magazine headline earlier this year. How scary does that sound? And the reports of close calls between airliners and small drones keep coming. In 2013, 238 drone encounters were reported by pilots in the United States. By August of this year, that number had already hit 700. What’s behind this aerial mayhem? More and more drones, of course. One industry group says that we have already sold millions of small unmanned aircraft systems, while companies such as Amazon are lobbying government agencies to operate their own commercial fleets. The population of drones is predicted to grow 15-20 percent each year over the next five years, and the commercial use of drones may be widespread by 2017. Just this week, Norway announced that a drone collided with a “low-wing, two-seat monoplane” on Aug. 30. “The whole idea of these drones coming into conflict with other aircraft is something that I'm extremely concerned about,” Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta recently told NPR. But how concerned should you be during your next flight?
I called up three airline pilots who fly for three major airlines, put the question to them, and got these three replies: “It’s not terribly concerning,” says Boeing 757 pilot Helena Reidemar. “I’m not too worried about drones,” said Boeing 737 pilot Scott Maclean. Airbus A320 pilot Doug Dupuie added: “I’m pretty unconcerned, I’d say.”
Considering all of the other hazards pilots have to put up with, drones apparently aren’t at the top of anybody’s list. In 2014, pilots had frickin’ laser beams shined in their eyes 4,000 times, a number that is set to increase in 2015. Then there were the usual close calls with other airplanes. Throw in hailstorms, wind shear, thunderstorms, tornadoes, ornery passengers … it’s all in a day’s work. Drones are just one more thing.
Drones seem manageable when we realize that we have a national airspace system that already accommodates a great diversity of aviation operations. Aside from airlines and military flight operations, we have flight training, police helicopters, firefighting, aerial burial, crop dusting, gliding, air shows, emergency medical evacuation, hot air balloons, photography, sightseeing, skydiving, traffic watch, and of course the chance to join the mile high club. If we can accommodate both military fighter jets and civilian sex ops, most pilots feel that we can probably safely add drones to the mix.
Our airspace system works by dividing up the sky so that everybody has a place to fly and a set of rules for operating within that place. On the airline side, surrounding every major airport is a designated airspace that looks like an upside-down wedding cake. As jets climb away from a large airport, they fly inside the cake. If you’re not an airliner, you stay outside of the cake unless you are specifically invited into the cake by air traffic control.
The FAA already requires drones to stay below 500 feet and at least 5 miles away from any airport, which is well clear of the cake. When these rules are followed, drones and airliners enjoy safe separation from each other. So if we have this great system already in place, then why are we getting all these reports of close calls and near misses?
The FAA acknowledges that one reason why we’re seeing these incidents is because we have fallen behind in ensuring that drone operators have the knowledge they need to follow the rules within the system we have worked out. Knowledge about things like navigation, airspace, aircraft performance, and weather. Here’s a pop quiz! How many public airports are there in California? If you answered 250, then you are correct. That’s probably more than you were thinking. So is there a small airport near you, and if you are unsure, do you know how to find out? (Get your free aeronautical charts here.) Many drone operators already know this stuff, but for those that don’t, the FAA will soon require that they learn, and we should see a lot of the bad behavior we see in the news go away. Randy Mumaw, a former Boeing human factors specialist who is now at NASA (where I also work), says: “The majority of drone operators will be good actors: well-intentioned people who will in large part follow the rules.” In a recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FAA seeks to require all drone pilots to demonstrate proficiency with basic aeronautical concepts. And when you’re done studying and pass the tests, you might get your own FAA pilot certificate. All in all, I’d say the FAA efforts are on point. If only we could speed them up a little …
Even after we all become expert drone pilots, all pilots make occasional mistakes. For this reason, today’s airplanes feature traffic collision avoidance systems that call out nearby aircraft when someone goofs and two aircraft get too close for comfort. The FAA is poised to require small drones to be equipped with their own “sense and avoid” technology that can detect nearby aircraft and autonomously take evasive actions when necessary.
Of course, there will always be people who just decide to ignore the rules. These people are the reason why we can’t have nice things. But we have protections against even the chuckleheads, drunks, and scofflaws. Drones can be equipped with geo-fencing that stops the device before it attempts to enter airspace in which it’s not allowed. The maker of the popular DJI Phantom 2 drone has already built geo-fencing into its firmware to prevent it from entering the prohibited area surrounding the White House. Sen. Chuck Schumer plans to introduce a bill that will require drone manufacturers to expand these databases to include airports. How about throwing in hospitals with helipads, temporary flight restrictions for things like wildfires, and that 500-foot altitude ceiling while we’re at it? Of course, even geo-fencing can be hacked by the most dedicated and malicious of actors. But at least it may keep the majority of everyone else from occasionally flying where they don’t belong.
But even with all that built-in safety, collisions are inevitable. “It’s just a matter of time before someone smacks one,” Reidemar told me, just days before we found out about the collision between a small plane and a drone in Norway. But does that mean the airplane will crash? Probably not. The drones that we hear about in the news are almost always the plastic ones that weigh about 2 pounds. Dupuie says, “They’re pretty flimsy. You might hit one and not even know it.”
And it turns out that the sky is already full of flying things that hit airplanes: birds. There are 6 billion birds in the United States, and the population is increasing owing in part to totally illegal goose immigration from Canada. And forget the plastic quadricopter—these Canada geese weigh as much as 20 pounds and can cruise at an altitude of 29,000 feet. So even one politician’s idea of building a wall along the Canadian border won’t help unless it’s a really tall wall.
We know from our long history of whacking birds that the vulnerable spots on airplanes are the windscreen and the engines. Enter the chicken gun: a specialized cannon that aircraft manufacturers use to fire chickens (not living ones) at windscreens and into engines in order to test their durability. Although the front of a jet engine looks like an industrial-strength garbage disposal, Randy Mumaw points out that, in reality, it is quite delicate. Alan Hobbs, a UAS safety expert at NASA, has proposed that consumer drones, the ones we hear about in the news, be made out of engine-“ingestible” materials—no crunchier than chickens.
Even if an airplane at some point does experience an engine failure due to drone ingestion, engine failures in flight are something for which airline pilots routinely train and are demonstrably quite proficient, as long as drones don’t fly into both engines at the same time. As Hobbs points out, the amateur drones don’t seem to fly around in flocks.
So should you white-knuckle your armrests on your next flight, prepared for it all to end at any moment? Relax. Reidemar reminded me that our cumulative safety efforts have landed us in the middle of “the safest era in aviation history.” Or as Maclean put it: “I’m more worried about being replaced by a drone than I am about being hit by one.”
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.