Recently, Directions Magazine published an article on the latest no fly map software available to pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Allison Haley and Richard Hanson of the Academy of Model Aeronautics responded to the article with information regarding what their organization is doing to help make the airways safer.
The AMA, founded in 1936, is the oldest and largest model airplane organization in the U.S., with over 180,000 members, 2400 flying clubs and 3000 flying fields. Its members fly aircraft that range from turbine-powered jets and giant-scale aircraft to sailplanes and multi-rotors. The vast majority of these pilots are skilled operators with a safe place to fly, a strong safety record and a history of flying responsibly.
While Haley and Hanson agree that no fly maps may reduce interference with manned aircraft flights, they're concerned that this measure alone doesn’t address the broader issue of potential small unmanned aircraft systems crashing over less controlled airspace, like freeways. To provide a truly safe flying environment for new sUAS pilots, they feel the industry will need to adapt some of the safety procedures and guidelines that AMA members have learned through their eighty years of flying experience — and they're sharing that experience through a targeted education campaign.
The AMA, along with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, has put together the "Know Before You Fly" campaign,which makes basic safety information available tonew drone operators. A number of manufacturers and distributors are now packaging KBYF brochures with each UAS they ship. The hope is that KBYF, or similar safety information, will become a ubiquitous part of every new drone sold. This effort, plus no fly maps, should make the skies friendlier and safer for novice sUAS pilots.
The following is the executive summary of a report by the AMA that provides more detailed information on sUAS safety concerns as well as possible solutions.
Executive Summary: A Closer Look at the FAA’s Drone Data
From military crashes to a UFO sighting, AMA analysis reveals a more complex picture of drone activity in the United States – and only a small fraction were legitimately reported as “close calls.”
Headlines from the past few weeks are enough to make you rethink your summer vacation. “FAA records detail hundreds of close calls between airplanes and drones,” proclaimed The Washington Post. “Leaked FAA report shows almost 700 close calls between drones and planes,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor. Stories portray drones “clogging U.S. airspace,” “snarling air traffic,” “giving the FAA fits,” and “penetrating some of the most guarded airspace in the country.”
As a nationwide community-based organization of more than 180,000 model aviation enthusiasts, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is deeply concerned about these reports. Safety is the cornerstone of our organization; our members have been flying model aircraft safely for nearly eight decades.
In order to better understand what’s occurring, and what role AMA could play to help advance safe flying, our organization closely analyzed each of the more than 700 records of “drone sightings” recently released by the FAA.
Without a doubt, some drones are flying too close to manned aircraft, airports, wildfires, critical infrastructure and in restricted airspace. AMA is concerned about these reports and helped create the ‘Know Before You Fly’ (KBYF) campaign in 2014 to educate newcomers to drone technology about where they should and shouldn’t fly. AMA and its partners continue to work with manufacturers and distributors to include safety brochures in product packaging and/or at the point of sale. To date, six manufacturers and distributors – Castle, DJI, Hobbico, Horizon, Yuneec and UAV Experts – have agreed to include KBYF brochures with their products and even more supporters in the manned and unmanned aviation communities are joining each month. Hobby People, a brick and mortar retailer, is displaying the KBYF materials at the point of sale in all 18 of their stores. DJI, which manufacturers the popular Phantom quadcopter, has also asked its sales dealers to distribute KBYF brochures with drone equipment sales, and has implemented altitude limitations and GPS-based warnings and limitations into its products.
Beyond education, AMA has encouraged the FAA to more aggressively enforce existing rules against careless and reckless behavior, as well as violations of restricted airspace. The FAA currently has the authority to assess civil penalties of up to $25,000 against careless and reckless operators. Hefty fines could help deter bad behavior, yet very few fines have been levied to date. While AMA’s members are responsible and know where they should and should not fly, all users of the airspace have a responsibility to ensure safety, and AMA is committed to doing its part.
At the same time, AMA’s analysis of the FAA data shows that the number of “close calls” and “near misses” is substantially lower than the headlines would suggest. So what’s in the data? A closer look reveals a hodgepodge of reports.
Some of the key takeaways:
- Not every sighting or report was a “close call.” Many were just that – sightings. Only a small fraction was legitimately reported as “near misses” or “near mid-air collisions.”
- Some of the most serious incidents in the FAA data – including two actual crashes – involve government-authorized military drones, not civilian drones.
- It’s not just uninformed consumers causing problems; the records include several reports of authorized or unauthorized public entities and commercial operators flying. Given the widespread interest in commercial applications, unidentified operators cannot be presumed to be “hobbyists.”
- Some sightings appear to involve people flying responsibly and within the FAA’s current recreational guidelines.
- Many things in the air – from balloons and birds to model rockets and mini blimps – are mistaken for, or reported as, drone sightings even when they are not. One pilot in Minnesota even reported seeing something that “resembled a dog.”
- A number of sightings have occurred over or around stadium events, wildfires, power plants and other critical infrastructure. These raise different concerns from pilot sightings.
- Despite the FAA’s stated desire to find and punish rogue operators, in almost 20% of reports – 142 reports, to be exact – local law enforcement either wasn’t notified or it was unknown whether local law enforcement was notified.
The following analysis delves into each of these findings in greater detail. Meanwhile, the conclusion contains recommendations for the FAA going forward, both in terms of how this data should be released in the future as well as what more can be done to address instances of irresponsible operations.