Researchers Find Hundreds of Close Encounters Between Drones and Aircrafts

A new study, Drone Sightings and Close Encounters, by The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, identified 327 close encounters involving drones flying dangerously closed to manned aircraft. The analysis found that 90 of the close drone encounters involved commercial jets. The FAA defines a near-collision as two aircraft flying within 500 feet of each other. In 51 of the incidents studied, the drone-to-aircraft clearance was 50 feet or less, the report said. Most of the sightings occurred within 5 miles of an airport and at altitudes higher than 400 feet. Those are spaces in which the FAA prohibits drones from flying, raising questions about the effectiveness of the rules. The cities with the most incidents were New York/Newark, New Jersey, 86; Los Angeles, 39; Miami, 24; Chicago, 20; Boston, 20; San Jose, Calif., 19; Washington, D.C., 19; Atlanta, 17; Seattle, 17; San Diego, 14; Orlando, Fla., 13; Houston, 12; Portland, Ore., 12; Dallas/Fort Worth, 11; and Denver, 10. Researchers cautioned that it's hard for pilots to judge their distance from another object when flying at high speeds. The majority of the incidents, 64 percent, were sightings of drones in the vicinity of other aircraft with no immediate threat of collision. The FAA has previously released data on reports of drone sightings, but the Bard report is the first comprehensive analysis of the sightings by researchers outside the aviation community. “It's hard to say if or when there might be a drone crash, but certainly we've seen an increase in the number of reports and an increase in the number of close counters,” said Dan Gettinger, co-director of the drone center. Government and industry officials have expressed concern that if a drone — much like a bird — is sucked into an aircraft engine, smashes a cockpit windshield or damages a critical aircraft surface area, it could cause an air crash. “With sufficient speed, bird strikes have been known to penetrate the cockpit,” the report said. “It's entirely possible, then, that a drone could also break through into a cockpit, potentially causing serious harm to the pilots or other occupants.” The FAA hasn't yet said when it will require engine makers to conduct tests with drones, but officials have unofficially acknowledged they are working on the issue, the report said. The report cited research by engineers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., that used data on bird strikes to create computer simulations of drones striking planes in order to identify the riskiest impact locations. They concluded that hobby drones weighing between 2 and 6 pounds “can potentially cause critical damage.” The FAA is in the process of finalizing rules for the use of commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The agency is also expected to shortly issue rules requiring the registration of small drones, including those used by hobbyists, in an effort to help create a “culture of responsibility” among drone operators. The agency is trying to get the registration rules in place before Christmas.

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