Unless you've been living under a rock, you must have heard about the drone that hit a plane in Canada (or rather, a plane that hit a drone!). Yes, the headlines from October 16, 2017 read "A drone crashed into a commercial airplane in Canada, the first time such an incident has occurred in the country..."
There was a huge amount of chatter all over the drone discussion forums about this incident. In fact, there was quite a bit of criticism about whether or not it was actually a drone, and how a pilot could even tell if it was a drone or not... in the end, it turned out that it was in fact a drone.
We recently attended the Unmanned Systems Canada conference in Toronto, Canada and met with many drone industry professionals, leaders and pioneers. One such presentation showed an empirical case study in which several planes flew past a single tree in a field, 400ft above which hovered a single DJI Phantom UAV in a static position. The planes knew exactly where the drone was, and performed a series of flybys to determine if, or when they would be able to see the drone.
The results were not surprising! In the vast majority of instances, the pilots were not able to see the drone at all, and when they did see it, it was so quick that if they didn't actually know that they were looking at a drone (because they knew it was there), they may not have been able to determine if it was a drone or a bird or some other flying object. This begs the question when we hear that there have been over 600 reported "drone incidents" in Canada - How many of these incidents are actually drones? Alternatively, how many times is this really happening (if only a small percentage of times a drone comes close to a plane a pilot can actually see it!)?
You may also recall similar headlines in the United Kingdom from mid-April 2016 that read "Drone hits British Airways plane as it prepares to land at Heathrow." What you might have missed after all the hoopla of the incident calmed down was the followup article "Drone believed to have hit British Airways plane could have been plastic bag" a few days later. It is unfortunate for the UAV industry that the media has an absolute fascination with everything "drone" (good or bad, but especially bad!), especially a nugget of news as tantalizing as a drone hitting a plane. They know that in the back of many people's minds when they think about drones flying around is a small fear, or perhaps uncertainty about whether a drone could take down a plane.
Now, I'm not a soothsayer, and I certainly cannot predict the future, but I think that the likelihood of more drone strikes on airplanes in the future is quite high. I say that based on the fact that so many people are using them, all around the world, and there are many people out there who neglect the rules and regulations, and attempt to do foolish things, like flying a drone above the clouds... but the vast majority of people using drones are not going to be attempting such idiotic feats. Most people use them properly simply because they don't want them to break, or to blow away!
After so long without a legitimate drone collision with an airplane, within a very short time there were actually two legitimate incidents. Shortly before the incident in Canada, a drone collided with a Blackhawk helicopter as it flew over New York City. The results? The drone was obliterated (about 50% was recovered as proof that it wasn't just a plastic bag!). The helicopter sustained some damage - one of the blades needed to be replaced and apparently there were pieces of the drone embedded in the door of the helicopter.
It's not an easy issue to wrap your head around. It certainly causes some people to lose sleep at night, but as the industry continues to improve upon technology, I believe that drones are only going to become more reined in, with the adoption of aircraft tracking technology and ADS-B transponders included on more and more systems. It clearly cannot be left up to the user, who as we continue to see in headlines, will make bad decisions on behalf of all drone users. So lets hope that drone manufacturers start leading the way to help make the airspace a safer place!
If you are interested in learning more about the safe operation of UAVs to become a recreational or commercial drone pilot, please consider registering for our UAV Ground School course, which is only $100 for non-Canadians (Canadians must also take an in-class session that has loads of value over a two-day period that will help you to be a great UAV pilot).
Our course is the only course in Canada to be offered in multiple universities for credit. Please Contact Us if you have any questions or would like more information!