With more drones in the air than ever before, there are more chances for the unmanned, under-regulated flying machines to collide with planes and helicopters flying over US airspace. Close encounters and even near-misses happen more often than you would think: about 25 times a month, in fact.
That's according to data the Federation Aviation Administration gave news outlets last month, based on reports the agency receives from pilots who spot the machines from the cockpit, often flying way higher than the legal limit of 120m.
Yesterday, we learned that a drone almost smoked a plane that was landing at London's Heathrow Airport this past summer. And that kind of scary near-miss (classified as a "serious risk of collision") is on the rise in the US as well. In New York alone, there were 12 cases last month where drones got too close to NYPD helicopters and commercial planes flying into LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports.
"The reports range from unmanned aircraft sightings without impact to other pilots and aircraft, to on a few occasions, pilots altering course to avoid an unmanned aircraft," the FAA statement says.
Sometimes these close encounters of the drone kind are accidents: One of the reported incidents describes how a high school football team lost control of the drone they used to record their game. It popped up at 430m, a good few hundred metres higher than the legal altitude for drones.
Other times, it's not clear why drones popped up so close to flights. Another incident describes how a drone came within 15m of crashing into a plane about to land at Washington Dulles airport, which sounds an awful lot like what went down (and nearly caused an Airbus to go down) at Heathrow. Several aircraft spotted drones hovering near college football stadiums with cameras strapped to the devices, which is much more likely to be an intentional flight path.
The data doesn't include incidents reported to local law enforcement, so the actual numbers are near-collisions is likely even higher, something I do not recommend thinking about as you're staring out the window on your flight home for the holidays unless you enjoy terror or have taken enough Xanax to numb your ability to fear the modern world's ceaselessly expanding options for violent, immediate death.
Next to commercial planes, drones look little as hell. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a full-fledged disaster if a quadcopter hit a plane. Lots of things can mess up a plane! Geese have caused fatal crashes for commercial liners and Air Force helicopters. Drones are like shitty metal geese, and unless regulation occurs (and, likely, even if it does) there's going to be a crash sooner or later.
That said, it's worth noting that while pilots dodging drones midair sounds pretty dystopian, these are the type of scary stats the FAA can latch onto to push through overly restrictiveregulations, and we don't want that either.
It's clear that drones need to be regulated, although the FAA's reported plans to require commercial drone operators to have pilot licenses would be an overly restrictive measure, since getting a pilot licence is an involved process and a lot of farmers and other casual commercial pilots will be less likely to adopt the technology. The trick — and it won't be easy — is figuring out how to protect the skies without killing a burgeoning industry.