Last week a drone may have been involved in the crash of an Robinson R-22 being flown near Charleston, SC, by a private helicopter instructor and trainee. That comes on the heels of the first confirmed strike of an aircraft in the U.S. by a drone on 21 September 2017, when a UAV being flown illegally by a hobbyist pilot hit a UHM-60 Black Hawk helicopter over Midland Beach in Staten Island, New York.
Fortunately, no injuries were reported in either incident. It brings to question growing concerns about what will happen when -- not if -- more drone strikes on helicopters occur.
It is projected that nearly 3 million drones will have been sold in 2017 though the final numbers are not yet in.
According to the Department of Transportation's Secretary Elaine Chao there are over 1 million drones registered as of January 2018, 878,000 by hobbyists, with the remaining 122,000 by commercial, public safety and others. There are approximately 50,000 registered Part 107 and Section 333 operators with that number growing.
The use of drones by public safety, first responders, commercial, and hobbyist operators has and will continue to grow in the coming years. Drones bring great advantages to the mission of public safety and first responder personnel in their daily work and in situations such as fire operations, disasters, search and rescue, accident investigations and law enforcement events. Of concern as these numbers increase is the entrance of many new drone operators, both hobbyist and commercial, with little to no training and in many cases knowledge regarding the operation of unmanned aircraft and the huge responsibility that they have undertaken as a drone pilot. This influx of inexperienced and low time drone pilots puts low level flight operations by general aviation, law enforcement, fire, EMS and air medical helicopters into potentially unsafe situations.
According to the latest FAA quarterly report thru September 2017, there are approximately 250+ interfaces between manned and unmanned aircraft each month in the U.S., up from approximately 100 per month in 2016. To review the latest report and sort by state see the following link https://www.faa.gov/uas/resources/uas_sightings_report/. The South Carolina incident is still under investigation. The drone pilot in the UH-60 incident was located and interviewed by the NTSB. The full report of the incident can be found at https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20170922X54600&AKey=1&RType=HTML&IType=IA%EF%BB%BF
There have been lots of questions about what would happen if a drone hits a manned aircraft long before the UHM-60 incident. ASSURE, established as the FAA UAS Center of Excellence and comprised of 23 of the world's leading research institutions and more than 100 leading industry/government partners, conducted the most recent research study to help answer this question. The results of research study concluded that if a drone were to hit a large aircraft it would cause greater structural damage than that done by birds. Since this study was based upon large aircraft only, a smaller aircraft such as a helicopter colliding with a drone could have catastrophic results. The FAA will use this study's results and those of upcoming studies to develop risk mitigation requirements for drones. The study details can be found in the article in the following link. https://news.osu.edu/news/2017/12/06/study-finds-drones-more-damaging-than-bird-strikes-to-planes/
On October 25, 2017, the Department of Transportation announced a new drone pilot program, Drone Integration Pilot Program (DIPP), to allow interested communities to safely experiment with new drone technologies. This includes package delivery, emergency inspections, drone flights over people, beyond the line of sight etc. The data, best practices and insights gained from the program will be used to enable the next generation of drone operations and provide for de-confliction in the airspace between manned and unmanned aircraft.
Participation in this pilot program is strictly voluntary and the interest received has been overwhelming for the FAA. More than 150 completed applications have been received from over 40 states, 75 local governments, several tribal entities, more than 15 colleges and universities and 6 airport authorities. Each entity that is awarded one of the spots will be comprised of public and private partners being led by a governmental agency. Secretary Chao announced that in the first round there will be at least ten lead participants. The first round participants will be announced in the coming months. Illinois and Wisconsin are among the states who have applied with the lead agency being the University of Wisconsin with the UASAN in the coordinating role should they be selected.
It was on 12 December 2017 that President Trump reinstated the requirement for hobbyist drone operators to register their drones after the previous requirement had been struck down in federal appeals court in May. Registration information for Part 107 and hobbyists can be found at https://faadronezone.faa.gov/#/. More information for hobbyists may be found at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/for-recreational-users/ that you can share via social media with your community. Then on 5 January another class action lawsuit was filed against the FAA regarding the requirement for recreational/hobbyist drone operators to register their drones. Stay tuned to the latest as this story is ever changing and evolving!
In the end, de-confliction of the airspace is critically important as manned and unmanned aircraft must find ways to co-exist for the safety of all who fly and those who are engaged in public safety and first responder operations. This will require the continued efforts of federal, state, local agencies in partnership and collaboration with the private sector to manage and grow the UAS industry while maintaining the airspace safety the flying public and air medical providers has come to expect. We have exciting times ahead of us as integration of drones into everyday operations and life becomes a reality.