UAS Near Misses Remain A Concern

By Patrick C. Miller | January 07, 2016

There’s been a tendency by some—primarily among hobbyist drone operators—to discount or downplay close encounters between manned and unmanned aircraft. Last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) data dump of hundreds of such incidents with little investigation or context was followed by the subsequent debunking of most of the reports by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). That didn’t help matters.

However, a recent report by the Center for the Study of the Drone conducted by Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel of Bard College in New York provides a scholarly, factual and systematic analysis of these incidents. It is titled “Drone Sightings and Close Encounters: An Analysis.”

Not surprisingly, the study found that most manned versus unmanned aircraft encounters occur around airports where traffic is heaviest and drone flying is prohibited by the FAA. According to the study, there were 158 incidents where an unmanned aerial system (UAS) came within 200 feet or less of a manned aircraft. In 51 of those incidents, the drone was less than 50 feet away from the manned aircraft. Pilots were forced to maneuver to avoid a collision 28 times.

The Bard College study also revealed that 116 of the close encounters involved 90 commercial aircraft, most of which were airliners capable of carrying 50 or more passengers. There were also 38 close encounters involving helicopters.

The number of truly close encounters certainly doesn’t support some of the hyperventilating coverage by the media. But just because the numbers aren’t as high as some might expect, it doesn’t mean the issue isn’t serious.

The study asks an important question: “Why are these incidents occurring and what can be done to prevent a potentially catastrophic accident?”

There is no question that as the number of commercial and hobbyist drone operators increases each day, the chances for a collision between a manned and unmanned aircraft becomes greater. The study quotes an unidentified federal intelligence official as saying “a catastrophic incident involving a drone and a manned aircraft would provoke a concerted regulatory whiplash that could seriously hamper the growth of the industry.”

Anyone who seriously follows current events and politics should know that this is true. Tragic events frequently trigger overreaction in the form of new and sometimes unnecessary laws and regulations. As the study says, “It is important not to downplay the threat posed by drones within the airspace, but it is just as important not to exaggerate the proportions of that threat.”

The purpose of the study is not to shock people into action, but to find viable solutions through an understanding of the risks and how an accident might happen. It’s all about making the national airspace work for manned and unmanned aircraft, which in turn makes flying safer for everyone.