FAA, states mull ways to prevent mid-air drone collisions
GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The latest round of data released by the Federal Aviation Administration detailing sightings of unmanned aircraft by pilots and air traffic controllers shows no new reports in North Dakota.
Despite earning a reputation of being an up and coming hub for unmanned aircraft systems technology, sightings in the state have been rare since the FAA began tracking such reports in December 2013, logging only two reports — one each in Grand Forks and Fargo — in the timeframe.
As the unmanned industry continues to grow, so do the number of conversations taking place in North Dakota and across the United States that center around the potential safety hazard of their presence in commercial airspace.
"You are seeing state legislatures increasingly discussing and debating what to do about drones in the national airspace," said Arthur Holland Michel, a researcher with Bard College's Center of the Study of the Drone. "You are recently seeing discussions happening in the law enforcement community about how to best deal with these types of incidents, how to follow up upon them, how to identify drone use that is potentially interfering with manned air traffic."
The Center of the Study of the Drone published a preliminary analysis of the FAA's latest dataset and found 36 percent of the 519 unique incidents reported from August 21, 2015 to January 31, 2016 were considered close encounters by researchers.
These encounters are defined as a drone passing within 500 feet of an airplane or language in a report indicating a "near-midair collision," the manned aircraft changed course to avoid potential contact or that a drone passed dangerously close.
Some in the unmanned aircraft industry have accepted a drone hitting a airplane as inevitable, but place their bets on the offending aircraft being operated by a hobbyist rather than a commercial user. No matter who is at the controls, many predict a severe collision would have detrimental effects on the industry.
"No one wants to see a major incident occur," Holland Michel said. "There is a broad consensus around that this would result in a severe regulatory whiplash, it will have a profound response in terms of public opinion and there's no doubt a major incident would really harm an industry that is already facing a number of obstacles to its growth."
Playing by rules
Incidents of drones being spotted by aviation personnel — including some close enough to prompt evasive action by pilots — and other examples such as operators flying in prohibited areas or losing control and crashing has already fueled regulatory debates in numerous legislatures.
Since 2013, nearly 30 states have enacted laws tackling some concerns, such as limiting the use of unmanned aircraft by law enforcement and criminalizing their use in harassing wildlife, interfering with manned aircraft putting out wildfires or photographing private property without permission.
Another 35 states have considered legislation in 2016 as of last month, according to an analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In addition to state regulation, the FAA released guidelines over the last few years for commercial and recreational users, but its staff is still working on finalizing rules for operating small unmanned aircraft, defined as weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds.
Among guidelines for hobbyists are flying at an altitude of 400 feet and lower and flying at least five miles outside of an airport unless permission is received from personnel.
Commercial users receive permission to fly from the FAA, which also dictates how high and where they can fly. Most users receive authorization to fly up to 200 feet nationwide save for some restricted areas, but the agency doubled that to 400 feet this past week.
The analysis by Bard College found that nine out of 10 UAS sighting reports submitted to the FAA in which an altitude was available occurred above 400 feet.
Holland Michels said that doesn't mean most unmanned aircraft are flown at that height.
"What the datapoint really demonstrates is that these incidents tend to only occur when drones fly beyond FAA guidelines," he said. "There are very few incidents that result from drone users operating drones in a way that falls within the guidelines."
Few manned aircraft fly under 400 feet and five miles outside of an airport, save for emergency medical service aircraft or crop sprayers. As a drone flies higher, it's more apt to cross into the flight path of a manned aircraft.
The analysis conducted by Holland Michels and Dan Gettinger found the median altitude of the incidents was 2,000 feet — far beyond the guidelines set for a majority of commercial and recreational users.
While data exists documenting sightings of unmanned aircraft, insight into why operators may fly them irresponsibility or in prohibited areas isn't as concrete.
The FAA has launched an educational campaign and app, both promoted under the name Know Before You Fly, but there is no mandatory certification or test for hobbyists to prove knowledge of flying.
Holland Michel surmises some may be looking to test the capabilities of their technology and push it to its limit, including flying as high as possible.
"If you fly an off-the-shelf quadcopter directly above your head, you can hit some pretty impressive altitude and that's pretty enticing," he said. "That is interesting, that is exciting, that is something people haven't been able to do before without experience and practice and possibly building their own drone or remote controlled aircraft."
That capability has become problematic in the eyes of commercial operators, who worry about the reflection of irresponsible operation on their industry. In addition to near-midair collisions reflected in FAA data, incidents such as a drone crashing on the White House lawn have made national headlines in the past year.
"They're flying where they're not supposed to," said Tom Kenville, founder of Unmanned Applications Institute International in Grand Forks. "I don't know how we address that, but I think it's a national problem."
Kenville discussed the problem briefly at a roundtable of aviation stakeholders gathered in Grand Forks last week.
Joining him in his concern was Cynthia Schreiber Beck, a Republican state resentative and former executive of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association, which among other businesses represents crop sprayers. Both she and Kenville said more efforts to educate unmanned aircraft operators could be made, starting with manufacturers and retailers.
"We in the aerial spraying business are probably the worst off as far as sharing airspace, with the (potential of an) unintended incident or accident," Schreiber Beck said. "It's a high concern of ours."
At that meeting U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., noted the FAA is behind on its regulation and integration of the technology into national airspace, a commonly held stance by many in the unmanned industry. Efforts by the agency and other partners are being explored to keep the industry advancing, but the pace has been slower than many have hoped.
"There are a number of interesting and intriguing solutions that are being floated around but they're all very complex," Holland Michel said. "They're going to require collaboration of a number of stakeholders in order to come up with something that makes sense or works for everybody. And that's going to be a real challenge too."
By the numbers:
• Number of reported sightings of unmanned aircraft by pilots or air traffic controllers since 2013:
• North Dakota: 2
• Minnesota: 10
• California: 299
• Florida: 160
• New York: 139
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
• Number of unique incidents reported in latest round of sightings data released by Federal Aviation Administration (August 21, 2015 to January 31, 2016): 519
• 60 percent of incidents occurred within five miles of an airport
• 90 percent of incidents occurred above an altitude of 400 feet.
• 36 percent of incidents involved close encounter, meaning a level of hazard was present.
• 5 percent of incidents resulted in the notification of the FBI.
Source: Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone