AMA Performs A Valuable UAS Public Service

By Patrick C. Miller | September 17, 2015

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) went through the spreadsheet of pilot and citizen reports released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month listing 764 possible encounters with unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and issued its own findings.

In making this information public, the FAA advised: “Because pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, the FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”

This implied that because of the sheer number of reported sightings, a significant percentage of them were legitimate close calls or near misses between manned and unmanned aircraft.

One might think that the FAA would make some effort to put all this data into context or at least to categorize it by degree of seriousness. But it was strictly a “you figure it out” data dump that led to some sensationalized reporting by the media.

I made what was admittedly a half-hearted attempt to peruse the data to see if any alarming trends stood out. My impression was that some of the sightings reported came from people who merely saw a drone somewhere and called it in with no clue about whether it was flying legally or illegally.

One of the reports was listed as being in Canada, which made me wonder why the FAA cared about a drone sighting in Canadian airspace. Upon closer inspection, the incident had actually taken place in Ontario, California, which caused me to question how much effort was put into fact-checking and filtering the information.

Fortunately, the AMA spent time thoroughly going over the FAA’s information to separate the wheat from the chaff. As it turned out, there was far more chaff than wheat. For example, the AMA found that “Only a small fraction was legitimately reported as ‘near misses’ or ‘near mid-air collisions.’”

In fact, the report states, “Only 1.3 percent of the records (10 of 764) explicitly note that a pilot took evasive action in response to a drone.”

In addition, the AMA said, “Many things in the air—from balloons and birds to model rockets and mini blimps—are  mistaken for, or reported as, drone sightings even when they are not.”

Many amateurs will see the AMA’s report as vindication, using it as evidence that their hobby has been unfairly tarred with a broad brush. I can’t blame them for feeling this way because it’s mostly true. However, the report didn’t say there were zero close calls between manned and unmanned aircraft. And we don’t know how many real encounters might have gone unreported. It also stands to reason that the cheaper UAS become, more people unfamiliar with how the national airspace works will be flying them.

So while we can breathe a sigh relief that the problem isn’t as bad or as widespread as some would lead the public to believe, there’s no reason to relax safety standards or back off on efforts to educate and inform hobbyists about their responsibilities when flying UAS.