A plane crash is one of the scariest experiences. Unlike car crashes, chances of surviving a plane crash are very minimal.
That’s why aircraft manufacturers invest billions of dollars in alleviating these accidents. And to some extent, it’s paying off.
However, there’s a new source of fear when it comes to aircraft accidents – drones. That’s right. The small UAVs you fly fun or for professional photography are a potential hazard to aircraft.
No major accidents have occurred as a result of drones. But the FAA has reported several sightings, near-misses between drones and aircraft. There have also been some collisions. If the responsible authorities don’t take the necessary action as soon as possible, fatal crashes will be inevitable.
Please keep reading to find out how drones pose a danger to aircraft and what you can do to prevent it.
Has a Drone Ever Caused a Plane Crash?
Drones have crashed into planes a couple of times. In most cases, the planes had to conduct emergency landings.
One example is when a drone crashed into a Beach Airking A100 a few minutes before it landed in Jean Leasage Airport near Quebec City, Canada.
The UAV hit the plane’s wing, causing some minor damage. Luckily, the pilot was able to land the plane with the 8 occupants safe and sound.
The drone’s pilot broke a couple of rules (I’ll speak about them in a minute). He was flying at a 1500 feet altitude, while the limit is at 400 feet.
Secondly, he flew close to the aircraft. Also, he/she was never found, raising even more issues that need to be addressed when dealing with drones around airports.
Below are some of the regulations put in place by the FAA for flying drones in the US.
- Maximum flight altitude – 400 feet
- Pay attention to the regulations for the airspace you’re flying in.
- Avoid areas with several obstacles.
- Fly in the line of sight – you should be seeing your drone at all times.
- Avoid flying 5 miles (8KM) within airports, prisons, and other restricted areas.
- Don’t fly over crowded areas – including parks, stadiums, sports events, or bus stations.
- Don’t fly near emergency areas such as fires and rescue missions.
- Avoid using drugs while flying.
- Don’t fly in unfavorable weather conditions.
- Don’t spy on people’s property with the drone’s camera.
You don’t need a Part 107 license to fly a drone for recreational purposes. That’s more suited for professional pilots. But you have to register your drone as long as it weighs between 0.55 to 55 pounds.
What’s the Risk of Flying a Drone too high?
When you fly your drone too high, you risk crashing into a plane, air balloon, helicopter, or any other type of aircraft.
Besides crashing, drones could also cause interferences in the radio frequency transmissions, leading to broken communications between the pilot and the control tower or even lose control of the aircraft.
So, based on the latest regulations, you risk up to 5 years of prison time and a huge fine.
Why Are Drones Limited to 400ft?
400 ft is the FAA’s limit (Federal Aviation Administration) to prevent collisions between drones and aircraft. At this distance, the drone also can’t interfere with the radio frequency communications.
The basis of the 400 ft. rule is that the minimum cruising altitude for an aircraft is 500 ft. According to the FAA, 100 feet is enough to prevent both UAVs and aircraft from ever colliding.
This law applies to both professional and recreational drone pilots. But those with the Part 107 certificates/License can fly above higher than 400 feet when flying over buildings or other buildings.
This feature allows them to take on professional projects such as inspecting towers, skyscrapers, or other structures.
Some drones, such as the DJI Mavic, come with a 400ft altitude limit in response to this regulation. That means that they will never allow you to fly higher than that.
Some of them also allow you to adjust the maximum altitude within a specific range. And those with accessible developer platforms, you can disable this limit.
What happens when a drone hits a plane?
There isn’t much data to show what would happen if a drone crashed into a plane.
There have only been a few incidences that showed minor damages where the planes managed to crash. But researchers have been conducting various tests.
Kevin Poormon, who has conducted several similar tests with birds, tested the impact of a 2.1-pound DJI Phantom Plane on a Mooney M20 aircraft. Judging from the debris, this test shows that a drone is capable of causing a lot of damage to an aircraft.
According to the test, the drone not only damaged the wings but also damaged the spar.
According to Poormon, once the spar is damaged, the aircraft can’t maintain the altitude anymore, and it will end up crashing.
In their defense, DJI claimed that they used a drone that the research used a drone they don’t manufacture anymore. And that the researchers were not clear on the methodology they used to come up with the test.
Either way, the results aren’t too far from what could happen in real-life.
Are Drones Really Dangerous to Planes?
The risk a drone poses to planes is debatable. Some people argue that it’s not possible to spot a drone from a pilot’s cockpit.
There have been cases where people reported to have spotted drones, but they were not drones. But I think it’s even scarier that a pilot can’t spot the drone. That means they won’t be able to evade it.
To analyze the risk drones pose, let’s discuss birds. Birds are one of the significant risks that aircrafts face in the air.
One notable incident is when the US Airways Flight 1459 collided with a flock of geese. It lost all engine power, and the pilot had to do an emergency landing on the Hudson River. There were some fatalities reported from this accident.
What Are the Possible Damage Extent?
The damage an object causes depends on the impact velocity, mass, and angle of impact.
The object being hit also matters. With that in mind, most planes are designed to handle a lot of impact and turbulence when in flight. Passenger planes can even handle impact from a bird.
Considering a goose weighs a maximum of 15 pounds, the FAA figures drones could cause more damage.
They are made of stronger materials, for starters, which could cause more damage upon impact than a bird.
Secondly, some drones can weigh up to 55 pounds. And lastly, a drone will probably be traveling at higher speeds than birds, leading to a potentially larger and more fatal impact.
Others argue that drones may never be as many as birds in the air. According to this article, based on how often birds crash into aircraft, only one collision would happen in 374,000 years.
And only one fatality would occur every 187 years. That’s partly true, considering not many drones will ever be too close to planes. And a drone’s battery lasts a maximum of 30 minutes.
However, more and more people own drones now, and soon we are likely to have several of them competing for the same airspace with aircraft.
Even though not all drones weigh more than 50 pounds, imagine a swarm of smaller drones flying towards a plane.
Drones pose an obvious risk, and the best thing would be to prevent people from flying them close to planes.
Once they even had to shut down airport
Between the 19th and 22nd of December 2018, Gatwick Airport in the UK experienced one of the most significant delays in its history.
This was after a security officer reported sighting two drones close to the runway.
More than 1000 flights had to be suspended to prevent any collisions between the drones and the aircraft from taking off. This occurrence affected more than 100,000 passengers, some of whom were stranded at the airport.
Another sighting was made at the same airport in April 2019.
This goes to show how destructive drones around an airport can be. All operations have to be paused to avoid any accidents.
It leads to unnecessary delays and enormous losses for the airport’s stakeholders and the passengers. As expected, the pilots were not found.
Some major drone incidents:
Besides the Quebec City case, below are more drone incidents;
22 March 2014 – This is a near-miss incident between a UAV and a Bombardier CJR200. It was too close that the pilots couldn’t have evaded it. It was also the first case where a drone almost crashed into an aircraft in the US.
September 2017 – A Black Hawk Military Helicopter from the 82nd Airborne Division collided with a civilian drone.
The incident caused minor damages since the helicopter managed to land at Linden Airport. But some debris from the drone remained at the rotor system.
The drone pilot flew the drone too far from where he was stationed, and he didn’t even realize there was a helicopter flying in the area.
August 2018 – A drone crashed into a hot air balloon with three occupants. Even though the drone was destroyed, the hot air balloon was left intact, and it landed safely later.
The pilot allegedly lost sight of the drone, and he was flying 5 miles within the Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport. And he didn’t notify the Air traffic control.
This is just to name a few. But FAA and global aviation agencies report numerous incidences every year.
What Should We Do to Avoid These Incidents?
Below are some strategies that can help deal with rogue drones.
More research should go into finding out the real danger that drones pose. But based on the current incidences, it’s clear that most drone pilots either didn’t know the regulations, or they’re just ignoring them.
More fines, extended jail sentences, and other forms of penalties should be introduced to prevent these incidents.
Drone registration is also essential to identify the pilots in case of an accident. In most incidences, the pilots were never found since some of the drones were not registered.
Before the penalties, they should also train the drone pilots on the risks of flying close to aircraft and why they should avoid it.
Since recreational pilots are more likely to do this since they may not have the license or training that comes with it, training programs such as the Know Before You Fly can be beneficial.
Drone companies like DJI and 3D robotics are introducing geo-fencing capabilities where the drone alerts you when it’s in restricted areas.
Some drones will even not take off in these areas. The only issue with this system is that some drone pilots can override the geo-fencing. But in most cases, it works as expected.
FAA also released B4UFLY, an app that has maps on the No-Fly zones. When it was first introduced, it only had 1.5 stars reviews, but they’ve been updating it, and it now has an overall 4+ rating on the iOS app store.
It shades the zones you shouldn’t fly and enlightens users on other FAA regulations.
Better yet, you can even request LAANC authorization within the app when you need to fly above 400 feet.
Other helpful resources include FAA’s TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) areas, Know Before You Fly’s US Air Space Map, and FAA’s restricted locations map. Check all of these resources to find out the areas you shouldn’t fly a drone.
Anti-drone systems that intercept its operation can be useful. But they are not always practical in airplanes since aircraft use similar communication channels.
Shooting down the drone is not a good option either, especially around the airports. The shots could be missed, leading to unexpected accidents. And the debris could also cause injuries.
Some authorities have been tackling rogue drones with huge nets. They use other drones to drop the net or shoot it from the ground. Dutch police have also used trained eagles for hunting down the drones.
DJI also has a solution to this problem, Aeroscope. This is an anti-drone system that can effectively identify a drone within a range and extract information such as flight paths, ownership, and flight status.
This helps the authorities to make an informed decision on what to do with the trespassing drones. Aeroscope is applicable in airports, prisons, and other sensitive areas. And it can detect UAVs within a 50 KM radius.
Security agencies often rely on tracking the radio signal to find out where the pilot is stationed. But once the connection is lost, you can’t find him. But with DJI’s Aeroscope, you may have enough information to track down the pilot even after they leave.
Clearly, drones aren’t the only threat here. Drone pilots pose a major threat. While not much can be done to make aircraft drone-proof, a change in conduct among drone pilots can go a long way.
As a drone pilot, it’s your role to follow the regulations, avoid restricted areas, and notify Air Traffic Control before flying too close. That’s the only way to minimize the dangers drones pose to aircraft.
HAPPY & SAFE DRONING!