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How Much Of A Threat Do Drones Pose To Air Travel? Here's What You Should Know

March 19, 2019

A Mavic Pro drone is flown Jan. 18 in Bridgend, Wales. The U.K. government has moved to give police further authority to tackle illegal use of drones, including powers to land, seize and search drones, following a drone incursion at Gatwick airport in December.
Photo by Matthew Horwood, Getty Images
Gatwick, Heathrow, Newark, Dubai and today, Dublin: Each of these airports have been in the news recently when flights were halted or delayed by sightings of what were believed to be drones in the area.

So how big a threat is this? Are drones a danger to manned aircraft?

With 1.3 million drones now registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), up from about 470,000 in 2016 when drone registration was first required, anyone can see that there are more drones in the air than ever before. While a small percentage of these drones are operated for commercial purposes by FAA-certified remote pilots, the vast majority is operated by hobbyists for fun and recreation. Hobbyist pilots are required to fly under the safety guidelines of a model aircraft organization, like the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and they have to keep their drones insight, below 400 feet, and out of airspace meant for passenger-carrying airplanes. Commercial drone pilots have to know and abide by similar rules, but unlike hobbyists, they have to take an FAA test to prove it.

Because there is currently no test for recreational drone pilots, the FAA, the AMA, and a regular alphabet soup of companies and organizations have tried to make sure that drone operators know the rules before they fly. DJI, the market leader in consumer drones, has included a knowledge quiz that pilots must take before they can unlock their new drones and fly. Predictably, the answers are on YouTube, but operators still have to read and answer the questions. But as anyone who has slowed down when seeing a police car knows, knowing the rules doesn’t mean always obeying them. Drone manufacturers are aware of this, and try to use software solutions to keep drones away from the areas they don’t belong. DJI and other companies use ‘geofences’, which alert pilots if their drones are in areas that are off-limits. In some cases, the geofences prevent drones from flying at all. AirMap is testing a new geofence system that will provide pilots with real-time audio and visual alerts if they are closing in on airspace that is geofenced. But geofences don’t always correspond to the airspace the FAA wants to protect, and users can often override or disable them.

So despite education and technological solutions, drones are sometimes found in places they do not belong. A recent study by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University looked at drone flights over a two week period around Daytona Beach International Airport. The results showed that 7 percent of drone flights tracked exceeded 400 feet, and 21 percent exceeded the recommended maximum altitude for the area in which they were operating. In one case, a drone was detected at an altitude of 90 feet within a quarter mile of the approach path to an active runway. In total, 8 drones were detected within 1 mile of the center of the airport.

For perspective, in that same time period, there were about 11,500 aircraft takeoffs or landings at that airport. By comparison, 8 drones aren’t much. On the other hand, that’s a lot of airplanes in the sky and a lot of potential conflicts.

Kristy Kiernan
Forbes Contributor