Sharing the sky with drones means close calls and worries for airplane pilots

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-23 19:00:48-04

The skies above Cincinnati, once the exclusive domain of the hollow-boned and beaked, have become increasingly crowded since the invention of air travel and the unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones.

With so many coming and going among the clouds, airplane pilot Patrick Daley said it's harder than ever to make sure everyone stays safely out of one another's way.

"The problem (with drone pilots), I think, is that it's become such a sport to see how high you can go, how far you can go, how long you can go," he said.

Sooner or later, he thinks someone will go too high, too far and too long with potentially life-threatening results.

Some experts agree. Although drones are a fun and useful tool for the civilians, law enforcement agencies and companies that increasingly use them, they can be "mechanical geese from hell" for pilots and passengers of manned aircraft.

"By the time you detect a drone on a radar or see it on an aircraft, it would be too late to try to avoid that," said Javid Bayandor, founder and director of UB's Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab.

A real goose, according to Popular Mechanics, is only rarely a threat to aircraft even if it flies directly into the engine; nearly any living thing is made of soft, sliceable parts compared to the enormous blades that help power a commercial plane.

A drone, on the other hand, isn't so digestible. Even a small one has the potential to damage an engine so badly that an emergency landing can become the only option. Small aircraft and helicopters, although they might be more maneuverable, face even more dire potential consequences.

What are the consequences for the pilot of a drone that hits or has a near miss with a plane? According to Daley and Cincinnati Lt. Paul Neudigate, current law lags behind technology. Neudigate's department can file criminal charges against people who trespass or hurt others when flying drones, but simply being in restricted airspace isn't a crime on its own.

Daley said he hopes the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration will pass stricter regulations governing private drone pilots, but he thinks it will take a wake-up call to make it happen.

"Nothing is going to change until somebody dies," he said.

Others are more optimistic. Bayandor said a widespread push for greater safety from UAV manufacturers, aerospace companies and private citizens could help change the conversation surrounding drones and bring greater attention to the problems unregulated UAVs can represent.

"Pilots cannot necessarily risk their lives every time that they fly because someone happens not to follow the required restrictions in the air space," he said.

Although he disagreed with the notion that drones posed a serious everyday threat to manned aircraft, Eli Dourado, a tech-policy research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, wrote on The Conversation he believed the FAA should "pursue a two-pronged strategy of operator education and technological solutions" in order to create a safer airspace for all.

He wrote that strategy should include improving B4UFLY, an app meant to help drone operators familiarize themselves with drone restrictions in their area and invest in technological solutions such as "geofencing," which is a sort of invisible fence for GPS-enabled drones.

In the meantime, airplane pilot Ben Dyer said he would like to see greater efforts to educate drone operators on a local level -- preferably before they have a UAV in their hands.

"You should have to prove you've taken a test or you should have some check-off certification that says, ‘Hey, I'm certified to buy this,'" he said.

If you're a drone operator or enthusiast who wants to make sure they're doing things the right away, the FAA has you covered.