Hobby Drones Just Keep Flying

FSF says drones pose an “unacceptable risk to flight safety.”

Kentaro Yamada
Private pilot Kentaro Yamada shot this photo from his drone hovering in a busy VFR corridor in Chicago.Kentaro Yamada/Twitter

Lots of aviation folks are Twitter geeks simply for the news value. Chicago-area pilot and CFI Rod Rakic added a unique explanation. "Twitter is like the common traffic advisory frequency. Transmit in the blind and you might connect with someone who finds value in your message." For Rakic, co-founder of Open Airplane (@openairplane), an unusual photo of Chicago's skyline caught his eye last week. The picture appeared to have been taken by someone flying at about 1,600 MSL from east of Chicago's Loop, meaning the camera was out over Lake Michigan.

The photographer, Kentaro Yamada (@samaimaging), also a licensed pilot, posted the picture he shot from his drone in hopes of catching the eye of the local media by including a dozen prominent media handles in his post, not exactly a commercial shot, but then also perhaps an easy one to put down to a hobbyist just playing with a new machine.

The problem with the drone photo in this case is that the machine must have been holding a spot in what’s also a busy VFR corridor for VFR traffic of all types to transit Chicago’s lakefront while trying to steer clear of O’Hare International’s Class B airspace. In the spot where the drone was flying the base of the Class B is 3,000 MSL. The math means the drone could have been pretty close to any passing VFR traffic.

My own understanding of the complexities of the Part 107 commercial UAS regulations was about as helpful as Rakic’s. We both agreed Part 107 demanded roughly a 400-foot AGL altitude limit for drones and the need to remain clear of airports unless all the proper waivers were in place. The operation of hobby drones however, has absolutely nothing to do with Part 107 because the FAA looks at the machines, weighing up to 55 pounds as model airplanes and refers people to Part 101 where the only restriction on hobby drones is that, “No person may operate model aircraft so as to endanger the safety of the national airspace system,” and that “The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft.” Part 101 makes no mention of altitude. That translates into the least experienced drone operators in America also being the least regulated pilots in the nation.

While most fixed wing aircraft pilots may have thought, like Rod Rakic and me (@jetwhine), that the system would at least legally keep hobby operators clear of manned aircraft, that turns out not to be true. nothing much in the way of guidance applies.

Almost coincidentally, this week seems to represent a perfect storm of sorts for others in the industry coming to much the same conclusion. In a letter sent to ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu, Flight Safety Foundation President and CEO Jon Beatty said, "Based on a number of recent incidents, we are increasingly concerned that uncertificated, untrained recreational drone operators are flying small UAS near airports and manned aircraft. ... The proliferation and operation of small drones by people without aviation experience is becoming one of the most significant hazards to manned aviation. This poses unacceptable risks to aviation safety."

The Foundation urged ICAO to accelerate the development of appropriate standards and recommended practices to regulate recreational drones and to encourage ICAO member States to adopt corresponding regulations and consider mandating technologies such as geo-fencing and altitude limiters for equipment used by hobbyists.

Among the recent drone incidents Beatty cited were the Feb. 14 crash of a Robinson R22 in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., as an instructor and student pilot reportedly were maneuvering to avoid a drone; the October 2017 flight of a drone within 5 ft. of a commercial aircraft landing at London Heathrow Airport; the October collision between a drone and a commercially operated King Air during final descent to Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec; and the September 2017 collision of a recreational drone and a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter near Staten Island, New York.

At this point, the rest of us can only hope that in Chicago at least, the media is aware of the risk Yamada’s drone flight posed to manned aircraft.