May 7, 2019

Your flight is minutes from landing. Then you see a drone.

On Friday, March 22nd in Frankfurt, a drone once again flew too close to a plane. Will it take a tragedy before change is demanded?

Pilot Jake Fredericks won’t ever forget when he saw the drone.

"A drone actually shot up right in front of me, coming up through the clouds when I was on instrument approach," said the Arizona pilot in a recent interview. "I felt like my life flashed before my eyes, you know if we would have hit that thing, that could have potentially been death for us."

Drones in dangerous proximity to aircraft is a common headline. Last Friday, Frankfurt Airport, the busiest in Germany, halted all operations for 30 minutes because of a drone sighting. Gatwick, Dubai, Heathrow, Dublin, and Newark also headlined news in the last three months for near-misses—most notably Gatwick, which shut down for 30 hours, affected 100,000 passengers, and cost airlines over $60M.

Those are solely the effects of a suspected drone sighting. What are the effects of a collision?

Considering birds cause $600M of damage to aircraft per year, the reality of a drone colliding with a plane would likely be ugly. Pilots like Fredericks understand that a drone sucked into the engine or crashed into a wing could take down an entire plane.

In reality, experts are still uncertain—there’s no officially recorded collision between a drone and a commercial airliner. And that’s one reason counter-drone regulations and standard operating procedures are slow to be adopted.

The most often cited simulation of a drone colliding with an airplane has been contested by drone experts for being inaccurate and sensationalist. The simulation used CGI to simulate a drone tearing a hole through the wing and damaging the spar of the aircraft—an important structural member of the wing from which the engines are suspended. Similar wing damage could certainly have fatal consequences.

If life and death are the potential stakes of the problem, what is its root cause? Why are drones getting too close?

It’s a combination of clueless, careless, and criminal drone operators.

Regulations and laws haven’t been enough to stop the issue. In the United States it’s illegal to fly a drone within 5 miles of an airport, and in England, 2.5 nautical kilometers (and soon expanding). But reckless and malicious people don’t follow laws, and accountability is needed when laws are broken.

In the case of stopping the misuse of drones, there is debate whether legal barriers exist. Because drones are considered aircraft, some contest that it isn’t legal to remove them—even if they are operating illegally. Similarly, there is no law stating mitigation of a drone is itself illegal. US CODE Title 49 asserts it’s illegal to pirate aircraft with force or violence, and wrongful intent. Though some counter-drone systems may use force, many don’t—and all would refute that stopping a dangerous drone is wrongful intent.

The legal landscape changed this October, when the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law, granting Federal authorities the power to take down an illicit drone. Though it was an important step, the Federal government has given little direction or semblance of a rollout plan since the bill was signed. This isn’t old news: laws regulating new technology is slow, and their enforcement often slower.

What society should ask is: will the counter-drone industry only be kickstarted once an actual tragedy occurs?

Even though Gatwick went viral, no one was injured or killed. And despite the incident inspiring stricter laws about flying near airports (only limiting conscientious pilots), what was done at Gatwick was still certainly illegal at the time.

Some within the drone industry have questioned whether some of these sightings were even drones, at all. Though an important distinction, it doesn’t address the larger problem at hand: airports are currently helpless to proactively be prepared for the risk of drone threats. Even the potentiality of a drone can strike fear, helplessness, and, in the case of Gatwick, affect 100,000 people and cost millions of dollars in damage.

Flight crews and passengers deserve to feel safe when taking off and landing. Airports need a counter-drone system they can be confident in. One that can proactively detect threats, identify their intent, and if necessary, mitigate the drone without causing collateral damage.

The government and private sector together must work faster to develop standard operating procedures, formalized test & evaluation of counter-drone products, and regulatory frameworks for implementation.  

We must ensure our pilots and passengers fly safe.

Hopefully lives aren’t lost before we do.