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Pilot Reports Of Drone Encounters Have Increased 1,220% Since 2013

In 2017, there were 61 reports of drone encounters filed by pilots in United States, compared to just 5 in 2013. Here's how the booming "small UAS" market could create a hazard for your next flight.

The Startling Data

You've probably seen viral videos of near mid-air collisions between drones and aircraft. These videos are a tiny fraction of the encounters experienced every day around the country. To find out more, we read hundreds of NASA ASRS reports to find the conflicts that pilots experience on a daily basis. If you're unfamiliar with NASA ASRS reports, here's a brief synopsis:

The NASA Aviation Reporting Safety System (NASA ASRS) "captures confidential reports, analyzes the resulting aviation safety data, and disseminates vital information to the aviation community... Pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, mechanics, ground personnel, and others involved in aviation operations submit reports to the ASRS when they are involved in, or observe, an incident or situation in which aviation safety may have been compromised... The FAA has committed itself not to use ASRS information against reporters in enforcement actions. It has also chosen to waive fines and penalties, subject to certain limitations, for unintentional violations of federal aviation statutes and regulations which are reported to ASRS."

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After reading through reports, which you can search through yourself here, we sorted results containing the words: "UAS, UAV, or Drone" in each report's synopsis. The reports we gathered were marked as relevant for our article only when a drone encounter resulted in one, or more, of the following:

  • Near mid-air collision (NMAC)
  • Airspace violation
  • Distractions resulting in pilot error
  • Evasive action taken by a pilot

The following encounters occurred between 2012 and 2017.

Keep in mind, this is a tiny sample of all UAS encounters reported by pilots. The reports do not include pilots outside the United States and do not include pilots that didn't submit a NASA report. Click Here to review an FAA page dedicated to documenting hundreds of other reports.

Airline Crew Encounters Drone At 8,500 Feet

A CRJ-700 First Officer filed this NASA ASRS report in May, 2017 after encountering what appeared to be a drone on approach to Salt Lake City:

We were on approach into SLC. I was the pilot flying (PF), and currently hand flying the aircraft to a landing. At about 14.5 NM from the runway at 8500 feet (approximately 4,300' AGL in Salt Lake City), I noticed a small object appear in the flight path. The object, which appeared to be a drone as it got closer, passed over the top of the aircraft within 100 ft. The Captain notified ATC of what we saw. The approach continued to a normal landing. During the post flight walk around, no visual damage was found.

Even thousands of feet above the ground, airline crews are experiencing near misses like this regularly. Birds aren't the only thing you have to look out for nowadays!

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Drone Encounter Creates Distraction On Short Final

In early 2017, an airline crew made the following NASA ASRS report during final approach into Dallas Love Field (KDAL):

We were cleared for a visual to 31L off a right downwind. The preceding aircraft reported a very near miss with a drone at 500' AGL on Runway 31L. We were intently looking for the drone. Our first error was lining up on 31R. Tower queried us about our alignment at four miles, and we sidestepped to 31L. We continued to configure while looking for the drone. I called for flaps 30. PM set flaps 25. We were both outside looking for the drone below 1000 ft. We received a "Too Low Flaps" aural alert in the cockpit. We configured flaps 30 and landed.

This report demonstrates that drone reports are leading to more than near mid-air collisions. They're distracting crews during the most critical phases of flight at low altitudes.

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The FAA Is Looking For Solutions

The world's top drone manufacturer, DJI, reached $2.7 Billion in sales during 2017. No matter how many regulations the FAA puts in place, an individual operator has a lot of flexibility with how they fly a UAS. It's a difficult balance for lawmakers...will implementing strict regulations stifle a potentially huge economic market? And where does aviation safety fall into the mix?

Every few months, a video is posted online showing a near miss between an airplane and drone. It's only a matter of time before a serious incident occurs.

What You Can Do To Protect Yourself

There are plenty of FAA regulations meant to keep drones clear of your airspace. Drone operators aren't supposed to fly in controlled airspace, above certain altitudes, over populated areas, and in the vicinity of airports. Exemptions are available, but it can take months for a UAS operator to get proper approval. (Click Here for details on where it's safe and legal to fly UAS.)

Regardless of FAA regulations, the rules for drone operators are violated on an all-too-frequent basis. But even though there's an increased risk of near mid-air collisions with drones, you can give yourself the best chance of avoiding an encounter with UAS on your next flight by avoiding:

  • Low or mid-level flights over populated coastline.
  • Low or mid-level flights over population centers.
  • Low or mid-level flights over landmarks, national parks, and large crowds.

How To Report A UAS Sighting

If you have an encounter with a UAS when you're flying, notify ATC as soon as possible. If you're on the ground and notice a drone near and airport or aircraft, you can make a report as well. Make sure to include position, altitude, direction of travel, and a basic description of the drone. If you're flying around a non-towered airport, make sure to announce the report over the CTAF frequency.

When you land, consider filing a NASA ASRS report and contacting your local FSDO to provide more information.

Boldmethod

Have you had any encounters with UAS while flying? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. In addition to multi-engine and instrument ratings, he holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525). He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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