By Tammy Chatman
In September the FAA released its database that contained all reported drone near-misses and close encounters with manned aircraft since November 2014. The data was then analyzed by Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone.
It is important to note that there was a lack of consistency in the reporting of the encounters as well as in the information contained within each report. This illustrates the need for standardized reporting throughout all aviation sectors.
Of the incidents in the database, there were 302 near misses and 404 sightings. A near miss was defined as a drone being within the heading and proximity of a manned aircraft presenting a collision risk. A sighting was defined as the drone being operated above the legal ceiling height of 400ft (recreational operator) or near an airport or aircraft with no imminent danger of a collision. There were also a small number of reports where drones did not interfere with aircraft but still created safety/security concerns.
There were 552 incidents where distance from an airport was recorded in the database. Of those, 324, or 58.6%, occurred within the 5-mile no-fly zone that surrounds airports, and 228, or 41.4%, occurred beyond five miles from the nearest airport. Some incidents occurred up to 30 miles away from the nearest airport.
In 627 incidents where an altitude was recorded, only 61, or 9.9%, occurred below the 400 ft legal ceiling (the ceiling for commercial operations is 200 ft.). The average altitude in which the aircraft encountered the drone was 3,306 ft. Of importance is that in a majority of the cases in which a drone posed a potential danger to manned air traffic, it was flying much higher than the legal limit. The near miss distance was only recorded in 219 of the incidents with the average being 374 ft from a manned aircraft. The full report can be found at http://dronecenter.bard.edu/drone-sightings-and-near-misses/. To report a drone sighting or near miss- http://www.faa.gov/contact/safety_hotline
What does this data tell us? We must take the potential threat of a drone and aircraft collision seriously and work on prevention thru education and awareness. And how do we do that? Below you will find some ideas and suggestions that might be helpful to your organization. Some of the ideas are simple and easy low-hanging fruit while others take more time and resources to implement.
- Include information regarding first responder drones and third party drones within your program's safety in-services. Tell hospitals and first responders what to do if a drone is present when an aircraft is inbound, on the ground or departing a scene or facility. Make sure they are proactive in determining what they will do if a drone is present. If the operator cannot be found then what? What measures will/can they take to ensure the safety of the patient, crew and ground personnel? There is no case law as of yet on this issue so careful consideration has to be taken. *Since drones are considered "aircraft", from a strict legal perspective, shooting them down is a federal offense but the FAA has taken the stance that it is destruction of personal property.
- Partner with drone clubs, legislators, media outlets with/or without aircraft, hospitals, fire/EMS, dispatch and law enforcement agencies in communicating the message of safe and responsible drone operation around aircraft. Share the various sites i.e. www.knowbeforeyoufly.org and the new FAA App- B4UFly- that is in beta testing now but will be available soon for operators
- Present locally and regionally on HEMS and drone safety to community groups, drone clubs, hospitals (security), community colleges etc on how to safely share the airspace.
- Include info on your website and social media platforms about safe and responsible drone operation and potential hazards.
- Produce drone safety cards to distribute at PR events and to share with your hospital and first responder agencies.
- Write articles for your program newsletter; produce a short drone safety video with one of your first responder/hospital partners, send out letters and mass emails to customers to educate them on potential safety concerns and how to operate drones safely.
- Since the FAA excluded private (hospital) heliports out of the 2-5NM distance requirement for the Section 333 Exemptions for commercial drone operators, operators with the Exemption can fly drones around hospital heliports with no distance or notification restriction. To help educate your hospitals and their contractors, crafting a letter that highlights the concerns of drones operating on property and the necessary safety procedures needed is a great way to engage them and be proactive. Please make sure they understand that the recreational drone operators must notify the hospital/airport if they are operating within 5 miles of either.
Waiting for governmental agencies to "fix" this issue is not prudent for the safety of patients, flight crews, first responders, hospital personnel or the communities we serve. Being proactive in education and awareness can help to prevent what is thought to be as "inevitable". It is up to us!