ATM and the Handling of RPAS

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ATM and the Handling of RPAS

54TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Sofia, Bulgaria, 20-24 April 2015

WP No. 160

ATM and the Handling of RPAS

Presented by PLC

Summary

Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) have been in general military use for many years. The major discussion about commercial applications and their integration with civil air traffic and the associated safety issues such as legislation, certification and training together with privacy, liability, licensing and insurance aspects has only recently got properly under way. Their use could lead to a social revolution that is in some respects comparable to that brought about by the internet, which, having started out in the military world, has been adapted and democratised, revolutionising many professions and creating new ones.

With the huge increase in the use of RPAS, the Air Traffic Management (ATM) industry is focusing on how best to incorporate RPAS into the global civil air traffic management environment, seamlessly, efficiently and safely. IFATCA is working with other stakeholders in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) process to develop the international standards and recommended practices (SARPs) that will form the basis for the regulatory framework. As part of this effort, areas have been identified that will need to be addressed to safely accommodate RPAS, mainly in segregated airspace.

Introduction

1.1  It is estimated that by 2050 many different types of aircraft will be available in diverse formats in civil aviation. Some of these aircraft will be manned, others not. An aircraft that is intended to be operated with no pilot on board is classified as unmanned and an unmanned aircraft that is piloted from a Remote Pilot Station (RPS) is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). They are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), or, in conjunction with their ground based Remote Pilot Station (RPS), Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS).

1.2  UAS is the term that is used by ICAO to describe the family of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. RPAS is one type, or subset, of this family. The RPAS subset consists of two parts, the RPA and the RPS. The other type or subset of the UAS family is the fully Autonomous Systems.

1.3  UAS flights may be controlled by a person stationed elsewhere or by an on-board computer, which is driving the development of increasingly autonomous systems (Figure 1). UAS come in all shapes and sizes, some little different to remote-controlled toy planes, others as futuristic as the spaceships imagined in years gone by.

1.4  ICAO does not use the description ‘drone’, but it is now firmly established in popular parlance. In order to avoid legal confusion, including as regards liability and insurance, it would nonetheless be advisable to work towards using the ICAO terminology.

Figure 1. Unmanned Aircraft System

1.5  This technology has undergone rapid development and can now also be used outside the military context. RPAS should therefore be able to fly in unsegregated airspace so as to be part of normal civilian air traffic. Up until now, the technology has been used for photographing or monitoring infrastructure, but could also in future be used for transporting goods or people.

1.6  Safety should be a priority in Global aviation policy making. Current legislation is hampering the development of the Global RPAS market due to a lack of policy and procedures. The regulatory framework must take into account the wide variety of aircraft and will first have to address established technologies. More detailed rules can be introduced gradually, which must in turn lead to more complex RPAS operations being permitted.

1.7  RPAS already form an important part of the aviation industry in the world. This growing industry is expected to continue to grow exponentially and to become one of the fastest growing sectors of international economy. This industry has an important contribution to make in rendering a vast array of aerial services to the commercial sector. On the recreational side, participation in RPAS flying is developing with leaps and bounds and has the potential to outgrow traditional radio control flying and or to significantly impact on how these aircraft are operated. This industry offers the greatest potential of any sector of the aviation industry for meaningful job creation.

Discussion

2.1 RPAS system

2.1.1 RPAS can vary widely in size and serve a variety of purposes, from military training and law enforcement to research and commercial. Figure 2 depicts examples of large and small unmanned aircraft.

Figure 2. Examples of Large and Small Unmanned Aircraft (Source: FAA)

2.1.2  Regardless of aircraft size, significant differences between unmanned and manned aircraft make their integration into the ATM system more difficult to achieve. For example, unlike manned aircraft, RPAS pilots operate unmanned aircraft on the ground from either a remote control device or a remote pilot station, such as that depicted in figure 3.

Figure 3. Example of a RPAS Remote Pilot Station (Source: OIG)

2.1.3  RPAS are piloted from remote pilot stations (RPS) utilising a command and control (C2) link. The C2 link connects the RPS and the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) for the purpose of managing the flight. It may be in direct radio line-of-sight (RLOS) or beyond radio line-of-sight (BRLOS). In addition, air traffic facilities interact with RPAS using various technologies, such as radar and voice communication. Figure 4 details the systems that work together.

Figure 4. Example of an RPAS System (Source: OIG)

2.1.4 Given the complex systems and data communications involved in a RPAS system, the integrity, stability, and security of the link between the RPS and the RPA are critical to the safe operation of the RPAS. An interruption in the data link is known as a “lost link.” A lost link event, which could last for 5 seconds or several minutes, could pose a significant safety risk because direct control of the aircraft by the pilot on the ground has been lost.


2.2 RPAS Classification

2.2.1  Up until now there have been no specific/designated classification system established for RPAS. Classification of RPAS may be useful for the purpose of a proportionate application of safety risk management, certification, operational and licensing requirements. A classification system is needed to stratify the required levels of airworthiness, equipage and aircrew training standards. This would reduce the burden of airspace entry on lower-level systems, but mandate a significantly higher entry requirement for RPAS wishing to conduct Flight in Non- Segregated Air Space (FINAS). RPAS may be categorised according to criteria such as: maximum take-off mass, kinetic energy, various performance criteria, type/area of operations, capabilities. Work is underway in many forums to develop a categorisation scheme.

2.2.2  The Airworthiness Manual (Doc 9760) is relevant and applicable to RPAS in most aspects of type design and airworthiness approval of the RPA. With unique characteristics to be considered however, the RPAS is recognised to present some challenges for the airworthiness approval system. These characteristics mainly stem from the distributed nature of RPAS, consisting of an RPA and one or more RPS connected by the use of C2 link(s) and possibly other components.


2.3 RPAS integration into civil aviation

2.3.1  The use of RPAS, particularly for civilian applications, has grown exponentially: in terms of numbers, of size and weight, and of the many applications, the number of which is still growing. The availability of less costly, highly flexible and less intrusive RPAS will only partly take over the role of manned aircraft and in particular helicopters. But most of the use of RPAS will be generated by the many new uses of small, extremely versatile and economical airborne tools. This will generate new applications with the associated direct and indirect labour and general economic effects, such as increased productivity. The question is thus no longer whether, but how and when the integration of RPAS into existing forms of aviation will take place. This will also be affected by the increasing interest in commercial applications for smaller RPAS. Timely consideration will therefore need to be given to these aspects when looking at the integration of RPAS both at National and International level. Safety and privacy issues together with harmonised relevant regulation will play a crucial role in the public acceptance of RPAS.

2.3.2  The remote pilot is a new category of aviation professional. Unlike manned aviation, a single remote pilot license which covers all types of scenarios, is expected to be developed by ICAO. This license will be annotated with ratings, limitations and endorsements, as appropriate. Licensing of air traffic controllers will not be affected by the introduction of RPAS. However, when RPAS are introduced within an ATC environment, additional training requirements specific to different types of RPAS characteristics could be required for ATC personnel including, inter alia, performance, behaviour, communication, operating limitations and emergency procedures.

2.3.3  A number of the technologies that are necessary to the safe integration of RPAS are not yet available. The R&D efforts of the various bodies will therefore need to be directed towards further developing these technologies. This refers mainly to command and control, detect and avoid technologies, protection from various forms of attack, transparent and harmonised emergency procedures, decision-making capacities so as to ensure predictable flight patterns, and human factors.

2.3.4  Of course, it is also important that the security of data transmitted to and from the RPAS be guaranteed. Similarly, the data that the various operators exchange in order to ensure the system works properly must be able to be transmitted securely.

2.3.5  RPAS will have to fit into the ATM system (and not the reverse), with required adaptations to enable the safe integration of RPAS will have to prove to be as safe as current manned vehicle operations and, their behaviour in operations, to be equivalent to manned aviation, in particular for air traffic control. RPAS integration into the Aviation

System shall comply with:

  • Existing and consider future regulations and procedures developments.
  • ATC rules and procedures.
  • Capability requirements applicable to the airspace within which they operate.

2.3.6  And not to:

  • Impact negatively on the operations of the current system and its performance.
  • Compromise existing aviation safety levels nor increase risk levels.

2.3.7  The way RPAS operations will be conducted, as regard to ATM operations has to be equivalent to manned aircraft.


2.4 Specific commercial areas of interest for RPAS operations

2.4.1 RPAS industry should be able to render any service for which there is a sound commercial and safety case. At this moment five major markets have already been identified:

  • Leisure,
  • Information and Media (film making, journalism),
  • Monitoring and Inspection (electricity, pipelines, industrial installations),
  • Earth Sciences (agriculture, environment), and
  • Public Safety (search & rescue, pollution, policing, crowd control, etc.).

2.5 The use of transponders

2.5.1  The use of transponders for very small RPAS and operating lower than 140ft Above Ground Level (AGL) is not supported by IFATCA, even when they are operated in an beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) environment, as it would not significantly improve the safety case and may clutter Air traffic Control (ATC) where large number of RPAS are operated in a given area. Requiring transponders for very small RPAS makes no sense as these aircraft generally can’t carry the extra weight of a transponder and do not have enough energy on board to power one. Undesirable traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) alerts could also be a result of too many transponders in a very small area.

2.5.2  Where transponders are required, the use of smaller and lighter new generation transponders (having the same performance and characteristics as the today’s Mode – S and Mode – S Extended Squitter Transponders) is supported by IFATCA.

2.5.3  Segregation of the airspace to allow small RPAS to operate exclusively at very low altitudes (except near airports or when other aircraft is taking off or landing or performing specific low level operations such as crop spraying or search and rescue missions), is supported by IFATCA as the primary method for collision avoidance with other aircraft. Segregation has worked well for model aircraft that have a long safety tract record in this case. Most RPAS operations can be performed below 140ft AGL.


2.6 Challenges

2.6.1  The current market for commercial RPAS services is practically inexistent due to difficulties for RPAS to obtain flight permissions and their restriction to segregated airspace. In the long term, once safe but proportionate and reasonable rules are in place, the commercial and public RPAS markets will have huge growth potential as forecasted by several studies.

2.6.2  Relatively little scientific studies have been under taken in this field to actually identify and quantify the risks the industry poses. The technology driving this industry is developing at an unprecedented pace leaving policy makers and regulators lagging behind.

2.6.3  The primary mission of Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) is safety related, but they also play a key role in supporting airspace sovereignty.

2.6.4  To fulfill this task ANSPs need to:

  • be informed of all aircraft crossing the national border into the airspace under their responsibility;
  • be able to establish and maintain two ways communication with aircraft under their responsibility.

2.6.5  RPAS need to:

  • Be able to respond to ATC instructions;
  • Be able to integrate and respond to standard (visual or other) signals.

2.6.6  The multiplication of cross-border factors RPAS controlled from the territory of one State, flying over the territory of another State where ANS are provided by an ANSP located in a third State.

2.6.7  Technical contingency features required to compensate for RPAS features (e.g. predictable automated control procedures in the event of a communication or remote control failure). Integration of RPAS in the ANSP framework is more a matter of technical ability than one of producing new ATM procedures. There is no intention to create a new category of air vehicles subject to specific flight rules and/or ATM procedures. Presence of pilot on board or not should be (largely) irrelevant from an ANS perspective. Impact on the division of responsibilities between (remote-)pilot and air traffic controller should remain minimal

2.6.8  There should be no difference in landline communications or transponder data procedures, nor should the controller apply different rules or different criteria. Therefore, the air traffic controller should adopt the same procedures when using telephony or landlines for both manned aircraft and RPAS.

2.6.9  When operating in controlled flight, typically under instrument flight rules (IFR), the pilot-in- command has to maintain radio contact with the responsible Air Traffic Control Unit (ATCU). The same has to apply when a RPAS operates under the same conditions, except that this interface must be reliably established between the pilot on the ground and ATC. This can be achieved by radio or ground-based voice and data communication.

2.6.10  ATM provisions may need to be amended to accommodate RPAS, taking into account unique operational characteristics of the many aircraft types and sizes as well as their automation and non-traditional IFR/VFR capabilities. There will be some instances where the remote pilot cannot respond in the same manner as could an on-board pilot (e.g. to follow the blue C172, report flight conditions, meteorological reports).

2.6.11  RPAS status is not fully irrelevant from an ANS perspective and must be known by ATC. RPAS specific flight performance characteristics, the need for contingency measures and emergency recovery capability in case of failure of the command and control link.

2.6.12  The pilot-in-command of an aircraft shall, whether manipulating the controls or not, be responsible for the operation of the aircraft in accordance with the rules of the air, except that the pilot-in-command may depart from these rules in circumstances that render such departure absolutely necessary in the interests of safety. In accordance with Article 12 and Annex 2, the pilot-in-command is responsible for the operation of the aircraft in compliance with the rules of the air. This also extends to having final authority as to disposition of the aircraft while in command. This is true whether the pilot is on board the aircraft or located remotely. (ICAO Circ. 328, p. 15) The motivation for this is the aviation risk involved and the particular position of the pilot-in-command (situational awareness).

2.6.13  The lack of visual ability will not relieve (remote-) pilots from all liability as this handicap will need to be substituted by an alternative ability:

  • “Flight crew members have a continuing duty to be aware of dangers which they can perceive with their own eyes. Pilots cannot fail to use their own eyes and ears to be aware of danger. Pilots are charged with a duty to see that which is plainly visible.” (Pan Am v. Port Authority, 787 F.Supp. 312 (E.D.N.Y. 1992 at 318).
  • “The pilot, after his clearance has been given remains primarily responsible for the movement of his aircraft” and is “required to follow his clearance, not blindly, but correlative with his duty to exercise care for his own safety.”(Hartz v. United States, 249 F.Supp. 119 (N.D. Ga. 1965) at 125).
  • “The pilot has a continuing duty to be aware of dangers which are discernible with his own eyes and instruments.“ (First of America Bank-Central v. U.S., 639 F. Supp. 446 (W.D. Mich. 1986) at 454).

2.7 Proposed industry policy objectives

2.7.1  Establish a safety culture using a risk management model for the industry, identifying hazards, exposure, risk and controls.

2.7.2  No compromise on public safety.

2.7.3  Promote green and environmentally friendly, aircraft and aviation operations where possible.

2.7.4  Achieve world class standards for all aspects of the industry.

2.7.5  Encourage the use of small UAV operations, where it could perform aviation tasks safer or more economical or more sustainable than conventional aircraft.

2.7.6  Lower the carbon emission footprints of the aviation industry.

2.7.7  Provide an enabling legal framework for this industry to reach its maximum potential.

2.7.8  Foster a culture of accountability and transparency in the RPAS industry.

2.7.9  RPAS to co-exist and operate in a fair and responsible manner with other airspace users.

Conclusions

3.1.  Regulatory intervention must focus on those areas where legal uncertainties exist and on those aspects that cannot be left to the discretion of the aviation industry stakeholders. It should be performance oriented, in the sense that it must serve the purpose of maintaining and enhancing the safety, operational efficiency, economic effectiveness and environmental efficiency of air transportation.

3.2.  When adding any new type of airspace user into the existing air navigation system, consideration must be given to minimizing risk to all airspace users. States and service providers under oversight should therefore apply safety management principles and analyses to the introduction of RPAS operations. These principles and analyses should reflect on-going developments in RPAS capabilities.

  • Controlled Airspace: In order for RPA to be integrated into non-segregated controlled airspace, the RPA must be able to comply with existing ATM procedures. In the event that full compliance is not possible, new ATM procedures should be considered by the aviation authorities and/or ANSPs in consultation with the RPAS operator and representatives of other airspace user groups. Any new ATM procedures should be kept as consistent as possible with those for manned flights to minimize disruption of the ATM system.
  • Uncontrolled Airspace: In order for RPA to be integrated into non-segregated uncontrolled airspace, the RPA will need to be able to interact with other airspace users, without impacting the safety or efficiency of existing flight operations.

3.3.  The challenge for the regulatory authorities is to allow the regulatory framework to evolve in such a manner that it supports the development of international air transportation, without jeopardising the public interests that that framework is intended to protect and without leading to excessive complexity.

3.4.  Regarding specifically the regulatory integration of RPAs into the ANSP framework:

  • The operation of RPAs in non-segregated airspace raises a double institutional and operational challenge,
  • Amendment 43 to ICAO Annex 2 addresses the need for a prior authorisation and should satisfy the needs of ANSPs in their role to support States’ airspace sovereignty protection,
  • Integration of RPAs in the ANSP framework is more a matter of technical ability than one of producing new ATM procedures,
  • Presence of a pilot on board or not should be (largely) irrelevant from an ANSP perspective,
  • Impact on the division of responsibilities/liabilities between (remote-)pilot and air traffic controller should remain minimal.

Recommendations

4.1. It is recommended that;

IFATCA Policy is:

All Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations in non-segregated airspace must be in full compliance with ICAO requirements; and

Air Traffic Controllers must not be expected to handle an UA in a different way from any other aircraft for which they are providing service.

Be amended to read:

All Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) operations in non-segregated airspace must be in full compliance with ICAO requirements. Whether the pilot is onboard or not shall be irrelevant for the purposes of air traffic control, therefore the same division of responsibilities and liabilities as manned aircraft shall apply.

ATCOs shall not be held liable for incidents or accidents resulting from the operations of RPAS that are not in compliance with ICAO requirements, in non-segregated airspace.

Standardized procedures, training and guidance material shall be provided before integrating RPAS into the Civil Aviation System.

IFATCA is opposed to the operations of any autonomous aircraft in non-segregated airspace.

References

Opening the South African Skies for UAV’s.

Human Factors Implications of UAVs in the National Airspace, Jason S. McCarley and Christopher D. Wickens, Institute of Aviation, Aviation Human Factors Division, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Official Journal of the European Union C12 dated 15.1.2015.

FAA Oversight of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Appendix A – Near-collisions between drones, airliners surge, new FAA reports show

By Craig Whitlock

November 26, 2014

Pilots around the United States have reported a surge in near-collisions and other dangerous encounters with small drones in the past six months at a time when the Federal Aviation Administration is gradually opening the nation’s skies to remotely controlled aircraft, according to FAA records.

Since June 1, commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have alerted the FAA to 25 episodes in which small drones came within a few seconds or a few feet of crashing into much larger aircraft, the records show. Many of the close calls occurred during takeoffs and landings at the nation’s busiest airports, presenting a new threat to aviation safety after decades of steady improvement in air travel. Many of the previously unreported incident reports — released Wednesday by the FAA in response to long-standing public-records requests from The Washington Post and other news organizations — occurred near New York and Washington. The FAA data indicates that drones are posing a much greater hazard to air traffic than previously recognized. Until Wednesday, the FAA had publicly disclosed only one other near-collision between a drone and a passenger aircraft: a March 22 incident involving a US Airways regional airliner near Tallahassee, Fla. The newly released incident reports, however, reveal that the FAA has been receiving a steady stream of near-miss alerts from airliners and private pilots since then.

On Sept. 30, air-traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport in New York reported that Republic Airlines Flight 6230 was “almost hit” by a brightly colored small drone at an altitude of 4,000 feet as the passenger plane was descending to land. On Sept. 8 at LaGuardia, three different regional airliners — Express Jet, Pinnacle and Chautauqua — reported “very close calls” with a drone within minutes of one another at an altitude of about 2,000 feet as they were preparing to land.

On July 29, a US Airways shuttle flight that had departed from Reagan National Airport reported an extraordinarily narrow encounter with a yellow drone with a four-foot wingspan that suddenly passed within 50 feet of the aircraft while it was approaching LaGuardia.

Outside Washington, Porter Airlines Flight 725 from Toronto was descending to Dulles International Airport at an altitude of 2,800 feet on June 29 when it reported that a black-and-silver drone zipped past, just 50 feet away. On June 1, a United Airlines flight originating from Rome alerted the control tower at Dulles that a four-engine helicopter drone interfered with its descent and passed just 100 feet underneath the Boeing 767. The 25 near-midair collisions were among more than 175 incidents in which pilots and air-traffic controllers have reported seeing drones near airports or in restricted airspace since June. Pilots described most of the rogue drones as small, camera-equipped models that have become increasingly popular with hobbyists and photographers. Although such drones often measure only a few feet in diameter and weigh less than 10 pounds, aviation safety experts say they could easily trigger an accident by striking another plane’s propeller or getting sucked into a jet engine. “The potential for catastrophic damage is certainly there,” said Fred Roggero, a retired Air Force major general who was in charge of aviation safety investigations for the service and now serves as a consultant to companies seeking to fly drones commercially.

The reported increase in dangerous encounters comes as the FAA is facing pressure from federal lawmakers and drone manufacturers to move more quickly to open the skies to remotely controlled aircraft. Under a 2012 law, Congress ordered the FAA to safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The FAA is still developing regulations to make that happen, a process that is expected to take years. Under FAA guidelines, it is legal for hobbyists to fly small drones for recreational purposes, as long as they keep them under 400 feet, at least five miles away from airports and outside other restricted areas. Flying drones for commercial purposes is largely prohibited, although the FAA has begun to issue special permits to filmmakers and other industries to operate drones on a case-by- case basis until the agency can adopt a final set of safety regulations. The FAA, however, is struggling to keep up with an influx of cheap drones that have flooded the market. According to some estimates, half a million small drones have been sold in the United States in the past three years. The aviation-safety agency lacks the manpower to police airports or effectively track down offenders. Only a handful of rogue drone operators have been apprehended or penalized across the country.

In a statement, the FAA acknowledged that it is now receiving about 25 reports a month from pilots who have spotted drones flying in restricted airspace or in close proximity to other aircraft. “In partnership with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the FAA has identified unsafe and unauthorized [drone] operations and contacted the individual operators to educate them about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws,” the agency said. Previously, the only other occasion in which the FAA has released data on drone sightings near airports came in June, when The Post reported that the agency had received a total of 15 reports of risky encounters over a period of two years — or an average of fewer than one incident a month. Asked why there had been such a large increase in reports since then, the FAA said in a statement Wednesday that the difference could be “attributed to increased awareness by pilots and the public and improved reporting and record-keeping processes.” Manufacturers and businesses that want to fly drones — including real estate agents, delivery firms, photographers and farmers — have criticized the FAA for moving too slowly to develop rules of the sky for using the new technology.

They say the absence of clear regulations for certifying drone pilots and aircraft has contributed to a rise in reckless behavior by untrained drone enthusiasts. “The reality here is that we need to have rules,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a lobbying group for firms that make drones or want to integrate them into their business operations. He said “sophisticated companies” are largely prohibited from flying drones but that hobbyists can operate them without oversight. Among the companies that are part of the Small UAV Coalition is Amazon.com, which wants to use autonomous drones to deliver small packages to customers’ doorsteps. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Post.) Rapid advances in technology have made small drones affordable and easy for people to fly right out of the box. Some models cost less than $500. Most come with powerful miniature cameras that can film striking video scenes while hovering over back yards, stadiums, city centers and other places previously beyond the reach of amateur photographers. R. Lee Morris, a professional photographer in Charleston, S.C., said he began flying a small DJI Phantom drone with a GoPro camera last year and was “blown away” by its capabilities. “It’s just an incredible thing to have fun with.”

In a blog post in March, he wrote that he wanted to see how high the Phantom could fly so he tested it over the skies in a populated area in Charleston. He estimated that the Phantom rose to about 1,000 feet — more than twice as high as the FAA guidelines for hobbyists — and acknowledged that it could have caused problems for rescue helicopters or low-flying aircraft. In an interview, Morris said he felt a little guilty afterward and removed videos of the flight from his Web site because “I didn’t want to set a bad example.” But he added that he wasn’t convinced that flying a small drone like a Phantom posed an aviation hazard. He said a pilot friend told him that if the drone struck another plane’s propeller, the remotely controlled aircraft “would just explode into a million pieces.” Several pilots who reported dangerous encounters with drones to the FAA disagreed strenuously, telling The Post in interviews that the tiny aircraft can pose a menace to air safety. Drones are not equipped with transponders to broadcast their locations in the sky, and most models are too small to show up on radar or anti-collision warning systems. By the time they become visible at high altitudes, pilots said, it is usually too late to change course. “All it’s going to take is for one to come through a windshield to hurt some people or kill someone,” said Kyle Fortune, who was flying a four-seat Cirrus SR-22 near Medford, Ore., on Sept. 22, when he said a drone about four feet in diameter suddenly appeared 100 feet underneath his plane. He was flying at an altitude of 4,000 feet — about 10 times higher than the FAA’s height restrictions for small drones. “It was some idiot out there with a drone. I have no idea what he was doing up there, taking pictures or whatnot,” Fortune said. “If it had come through the cockpit it wouldn’t have been a good day.”

Mike Gilbert, chief flight instructor at Aviation Adventures, a flight school based in Manassas, Va., was flying a Cessna with a student and another passenger about 9:45 p.m. on Sept. 17 when a small drone with two red lights suddenly appeared about 200 feet overhead. “It came seemingly out of nowhere,” Gilbert said. “As pilots, at a minimum it’s distracting. If one of them hits us, we’re coming down. We’re trained to deal with dead engines, but we’re afraid it’s going to hit a [propeller], which would be a disaster, or the airframe.” Several other near-collisions have been reported by pilots of rescue helicopters used to transport patients needing emergency medical attention.

A Life Flight helicopter in Pottsville, Pa., reported Nov. 19 that it was descending at 2,400 feet when a flight nurse in the co-pilot seat suddenly yelled: “Watch out!” A small drone was flying straight toward the rescue helicopter “at a high rate of closure,” according to a report that the crew said it filed with the FAA. The pilot was forced to make a sharp banking turn to the right to avoid a collision, according to the report. The crew estimated that the drone passed with about 50 to 100 feet of separation. Greg Lynskey, government relations manager for the Association of Air Medical Services, said small drones were becoming a major concern for rescue helicopter crews around the country. He said the FAA guidelines that allow hobbyists to fly drones as long as they stay five miles away from airports are too lax and do little to protect helicopters that fly near hospitals or pick up patients at accident scenes on the ground. “I’m hoping this can get worked out before we have a catastrophic incident,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much to bring down a helicopter. If a drone hits the tail rotor, that’d pretty much be it.”

Concerned about the potential for trouble, drone manufacturers have begun to add software upgrades to their drone operating systems to prevent them from flying near airports or above a certain altitude. DJI, the Chinese firm that makes the popular Phantom model, now programs its drones so that they cannot take off within 1.5 miles of a major airport and must stay below 400 feet within a five-mile radius of the installation. The default height limit in other areas is programmed at 400 feet, although owners can bypass that ceiling by downloading a software application that comes with safety warnings. “We did start noticing one of the challenges, or opportunities, we have is to program basic safe-flying practices into the firmware,” said Michael Perry, a DJI spokesman. “We all want to see this technology safely integrated into the airspace.”

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.

Last Update: May 7, 2020  

May 7, 2020   46   Jean-Francois Lepage    2015    

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