Over the past few years, we’ve come to respect the logistical power of drones to, for example, conduct surveillance in places and weather conditions airplanes and pilots cannot. Drones can remain on station longer than a human could tolerate, so they should have a bright future completing jobs we’ve yet to create.
But like any other kind of flying machine, if unregulated in airspace as complex as that of the U.S., drones will become a menace. While the FAA’s Part 107 has brought some order to commercial drone operations, the guidance for hobbyist operators is a bit more vague; fly beneath the safety umbrella of a drone-community like the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
Many hobbyist operators seem to know enough to fly below 400 feet AGL, remain clear of other flying machines – especially the ones with folks like us in them – and avoid flying over groups of people. With millions of hobby drones just waiting for takeoff, the chances of the FAA enforcing any rules or guidelines are pretty slim. Manufacturers don’t even include much safety guidance information inside the package an unsuspecting new operator receives either.
No one’s worried about a 10-ounce micro-drone of course. And while hobbyist machines like some of the DJIs weigh just a few pounds, hobbyists are free to purchase what they want – up to 55 pounds - even a DJI Matrice 600 Pro Hexacopter, that with a full load can weigh nearly 35 pounds. The larger the drone and the faster its speed versus that of an airplane headed in the opposite direction, the greater the threat to whatever that drone might strike.
More significant threats of a collision between a drone and a manned aircraft seem to be on the rise. At an NBAA Safety Committee meeting not long ago, a corporate pilot detailed his near collision with a drone in Alaska. Last week, a drone overflew a helicopter dumping water on the Miles fire in Oregon, causing the entire airborne firefighting team to standdown until the drone had been cleared. Remember the drone video earlier this year shot of a passing Frontier Airbus headed into Las Vegas? The drone operator shot the video from above the Airbus. Don’t forget the drone operator near downtown Chicago flying well above 400-feet.
Last week, a drone operator on Florida’s east coast posted a video that showed another incredibly close call. The drone operator later claimed he was flying below 400 feet AGL, but the helicopter that nearly collided with the drone was flying legally too.
In the video, you’ll see the helicopter flying north along the coast near Hollywood approaching the drone, but the operator takes no evasive action, except to turn the camera around to try and capture a shot of the passing helicopter which by then was long gone. The drone was reported to be a DJI Mavic that weighs just a few pounds.
How much damage the helicopter’s windshield would have sustained in a head-on collision is anyone’s guess. While we might argue about who was flying at the proper altitude, avoiding manned aircraft at all times should trump any other drone guidelines.
On the website where the Florida drone pilot first posted the video, other operators left scathing comments and a potential glimpse of the future. "Grow up and be a decent pilot,” one said. “You are messing this up for all of us!" Another warned, "If there was a collision, a court would find you responsible. You'd have more to worry about than losing your expensive drone."
How much time do we have left before a drone collides with a manned aircraft, possibly resulting in fatalities. If the industry waits until an accident to try and police this safety threat, it will surely set the drone industry back a decade, including the legal Part 107 legal operators.