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Should you really be worried about drone sightings? Here’s what you need to know about that report

One of the biggest fears holding drones back from widespread adoption is fear of drones crashing — and interfering with manned aircraft.

A recent report from the Federal Aviation Administration stated that 3,714 drone sightings were reported between November 2015 and March 2017. The FAA closely tracks reported drone sightings, which could potentially lead to interference with a manned aircraft.

So how worried should you really be about all those drone sightings?

The Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) Drone Sightings Working Group,  which is an industry-government partnership group co-chaired by Ben Marcus, Co-founder & CEO of AirMap, and Earl Lawrence,  of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, found out. The team released a new analysis on the FAA’s report

And it turns out, 3.19% of drone sightings were potentially dangerous enough to manned aircraft that it caused the aircraft to reroute.

That being said, don’t freak out when you hear that thousands of drones have been sighted by pilots. The vast majority of them — more than 96% — are totally benign. Additionally, it’s not even certain whether those drone sightings really happened, given that anyone can make a report; it doesn’t have to be verified or proven to be simply reported. Reports are documented whether or not there is any sort of evidence, and often times, objects initially reported as drones turn out to be balloons or trash bags.

However, it’s worth taking those 3% of drone sightings seriously.

“There’s no doubt that some of the sightings are problematic – about 3 percent of the sightings included in the dataset caused manned aircraft to change course or take evasive action,”said Chad Budreau, Director of Public Relations and Government Affairs at AMA in a prepared statement. “That is 3 percent too many and needs to change. At the same time, we must remember that the vast majority of the drone sightings are just that – sightings.”

Here are some key takeaways from the analysis from UAST’s analysis of the FAA’s drone sightings report:

  • 16.01% of drone sightings were described as being less than 500’ away from the aircraft (though few to none of those drone sightings were confirmed)
  • 3.29% of the above sightings resulted in the manned aircraft changing flight or course
  • 70.41% of the sightings indicated the drone was over 400’ feet (which is where you shouldn’t be flying!)

But some drone industry experts even question the accuracy of the FAA’s drone sightings report completely.

“The FAA has issued over 14,000 airspace authorizations for drones to fly near airports,” said drone lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht in a blog post. “There is no way to tell which of these sightings is actually a lawful or unlawful sighting or not. All the lawful and unlawful get lumped into one big number.”


  • Stephen Mann says:

    “70.41% of the sightings indicated the drone was over 400’ feet (which is where you shouldn’t be flying!)”

    You should know better.

    For hobby flight, the 400 ft altitude is a recommendation, not a regulation. For Part 107 operators, it is a regulation, but it can be waived on application for a waiver.

    In reality, few of the hobby-class drones could reach the altitudes in some of these “reports” before their batteries are exhausted.

    This is likely what happened:
    Co-pilot: “What is that”?
    Captain: “I dunno, let’s call it a UFO”
    Co-Pilot: “No one would believe that, let’s say it was a drone”.

    I have been a commercial pilot for 35 years and I can assure you that I couldn’t identify something the size of a dinner plate 200 ft away while preparing for landing at 150 knots. No one has vision that good.

    The human eye is the absolutely worst instrument for judging distance. Especially up. I can’t tell you how many times a small private aircraft was 1000 ft above me and we rarely could make out the speck in the sky, let alone identify it. If it were an airliner 1000 ft above me it would be just as small a speck.

    This is typical fear mongering and catering to the paranoid. The panic, here, is completely out of any sort of proportion to reality. There is absolutely no factual evidence to support the fear and ignorance around small personal drones.

    would be jealous to have. There is also not one verifiable report of a collision between a small drone and a manned commercial aircraft. Not one. When it happens, the aircraft crew is probably not going to be aware of it, and the drone pieces will be scattered over a square mile. An FAA executive speaking to a nervous audience of helicopter operators at HAI Heli-Expo in Orlando (March 2015) and said that while there’s never been a reported contact between an sUAS and a civilian aircraft, the military has some experience in that regard. In all cases the aircraft was virtually unscathed while the UAS was “smashed to pieces.”

    Keep the risk of personal drones in perspective.

    Today (if this is an average day in the USA):
    1560 people will die from Cancer
    268 people in US hospitals will die because of medical mistakes.
    162 people will be wounded by firearms in the US.
    117 Americans will die in an automobile accident.
    98 people in the US will die from the flu.
    53 people will kill themselves with a firearm.
    46 children will suffer eye injuries.
    37 will die from AIDS.
    30 people will die in gun-related murders.
    18 pilots will report a Laser Incident
    3 General Aviation airplanes will crash in the US.

    0 people will be seriously injured or killed by a small drone accident.*

    Zero. Why are so many supposedly rational people so terrified of zero?

    * A band-aid is not a serious injury. CFR 49 §830.2 contains the definition of “Serious Injury” that the FAA and NTSB use in their aircraft and vehicular accident statistics. It is important to hold small UAS accidents to the same metric, otherwise comparisons are meaningless.

  • Stephen Mann says:

    “would be jealous to have. ” is a cut-n-paste error. Disregard that line.

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