Drone Hysteria V2.0

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Today’s reality quiz: You’re in an airport boarding lounge and the gate agent announces your flight has been delayed because a drone was sighted near the airport. In the improbably fantastical world I’ve created for this blog, the agent asks for a vote: Go or stay on the ground? How do you vote? How do the other passengers vote? I’ll get to my answer in a moment, in the wholly unlikely event that you can’t guess.

Drone hysteria seems to wash over the populace, the media and regulators in cyclical waves. But mostly, the two latter players engage in a toxic game of self-reinforcing hyperventilation while the general public stands by in mild confusion. A 2017 Pew research poll  found that only 11 percent of respondents said the presence of drones scared them. More than half said it made them curious and nearly half said it interested them. Half said keep it away from my house.

But really, shouldn’t these people be terrified? The latest round of pearl twisting occurred last week when the networks breathlessly reported that the FBI was obsessing over drones being flown over Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta ahead of the Super Bowl. A pilot friend who lives in Atlanta reported that he woke up to the sound of an F-16 cycling in and out of burner, evidently exercising to chase down TFR busters or maybe actually pursuing one. The stadium TFR for the game was an absurdly overbroad 30 miles from the venue, but ahead of that, drones were barred from flying within a mile of the stadium.

I would characterize this as the Twin Stupidities. First, drone operators ought to be aware of the restriction and the sensitivities and accept them at face value. And adhere to them. Second, the government goes just a little nuts in establishing the time and size of these restrictions on stadiums and other sites, finds violators and the press picks up on this as though it were actually a security threat. Rinse. Repeat.

The FBI seized at least six drones as of last Friday. Of course, the real risk of these drone flights is to low-flying helicopters which are themselves buzzing around as part of the security apparatus. Drones are a bona fide hazard to them; I wouldn’t dismiss it. But I’m equally skeptical that the industrial-security complex, in its unending quest for more public money for people and gadgets, isn’t overstating the risk by a little or a lot in placing so many helicopters there in the first place.

And speaking of risk, even people in the industry—you and I—have difficulty putting actual numbers on the risk. It’s two-pronged. The first is what’s the probability of an actual drone collision and second, what are the consequences of a collision. Probability is another name for luck, but calculating the likelihood of a collision is all but impossible because although the FAA reported in mid-2018 that more than a million small drones are registered, we don’t know how often they’re flown or where.

This site tracks drone incidents on a daily basis, but details are sparse because it’s based on press reports. The FAA processes dozens of PIREPs on drone sightings and however reliable these reports are or aren’t, they’re occurring multiple times a day at altitudes between a few hundred feet and up to 10,000 feet or higher.

What real risk these sightings represent is thus far theoretical. You’d like to calculate an accident or collision rate of some kind, but there haven’t been any—or too few to consider a calculation. There are two confirmed drone/helicopter collisions—one in New York, one in Mexico—but other drone encounters have been debunked. For comparison, there are typically half a dozen GA midairs every year and the incidence of these has been trending downward. The actual measured midair fatal risk is something like 0.012/100,000 hours, or less. Tiny. Inevitably, there will be drone/aircraft collisions. Perhaps even enough to better understand the risk.

These guys extrapolated wildlife data as a surrogate for drone strikes and estimated one strike per 374,000 years of drone flight. Or, put another way, the probability of collision with a small UAS is 0.0000306/100,000 drone flight hours. That’s orders of magnitude less than the GA midair risk. I might quarrel with that number on an instinctual basis, but I don’t have any better data. It’s vanishingly low.

You may know that the FAA pegs failure risk for Part 25 aircraft components at 10-9, a number that’s functionally close to zero. The drone risk—at least using the wildlife paradigm—is greater, but still a tiny risk. (It’s 10-5.) And that’s just the probability of a strike, not an aircraft loss. That gets us to outcome.

As far as consequences, we have more data, thanks to the FAA’s ASSURE research work that found that a collision between a small drone and a bizjet or airliner would likely cause more significant damage than a bird would. It found that primary structures—wings, horizontal and vertical fins—could be penetrated and damaged, but windshields were less susceptible. It also found that turbines would be significantly damaged by drone ingestion, just as they would be by birds.

Significantly, the FAA data made no assumptions and offered no probabilities on what effect this damage would have on the outcome of the flight—in other words, would the aircraft survive. You’re left to your own devices to determine what you think the risk is.

For light aircraft, last fall, a private research company, the University of Dayton Research Institute, got into a spat with drone maker DJI over this video. It depicted a DJI Phantom annihilating the wing of a Mooney M20 in a simulated collision. At first, I thought DJI did protest too much, but they made the valid claim that UDRI used the highest conceivable closure speeds, which DJI complained generated four times the impact energy of a more realistic collision scenario.

Perhaps so. Although the scenario exists at the outer edge of the possible collision envelope, it could happen. But the larger question is would that damage take down the airplane? My assessment is that it would not. I’ve seen worse wing damage from birds. If it hit the windshield, well, maybe game over. Life has risks and you can’t zero them all.

Taking this knowledge back into the boarding lounge, when the gate agent asks for the imaginary vote, my response would be why haven’t we left yet. My guess is the majority of passengers would vote similarly. I am thus perplexed at the U.K.’s Heathrow and Gatwick shutdowns because of drone sightings. Gatwick was down 36 hours just before Christmas. In the U.S., Newark had a short ground stop of its own last week.

In my view, given the significant disruption and economic loss associated with such action, these decisions are out of sync with the real risk, which is simply demonstrably low regardless of what demons lurk under your bed. I think the U.K. decision entailed a third kind of risk: the political sort. Looking bad for appearing to be callous about public safety. (If Gatwick shuts down, maybe we should, too.)

What’s to be done? Clearly not nothing. Major airports face an unknown risk from small drones and even though it appears minimal, shutting them down periodically is just not an acceptable option. Every time I attend the drone shows, there are always companies displaying anti-drone technology. It’s a growth industry. These devices sort into two types: RFI weapons that delink the drone from its controller and “kinetic” choices that blast it to bits or capture it physically. Think skeet shooting. Airports may just have to make those kinds of investments.

But there’s a paradox here. If you install that equipment, it will be neither cheap nor 100 percent effective at reducing risk that’s already minimal. It acknowledges the reality that the political class and general public prefer a security edifice with nice window treatments. If airports want true 10-9 probability on drone protection, good luck.

I don’t favor banning the sale of small drones, but if a major airline crash is caused by one—low probability in my estimation—it may come to that. In the meantime, the companies that sell these things, the Academy of Model Aeronautics and perhaps even local law enforcement agencies need to do better in educating the shallow end of the gene pool about the rules for flying small UAS. And for serious violations—flying over crowds and strafing stadiums—a few applications of draconian fines might help.

The FAA does pursue civil penalties, but enforcement has been uneven at best. For example, the guy who flew his DJI onto the White House lawn was fined $5500. The owner of a drone chased down by an NYPD helicopter in 2014 was fined $1600, but mitigated it to $800. The FAA reserves the right to revoke a pilot’s certificate—for manned aircraft—for a drone violation. And it did just that to David Quinones in 2015. The FAA pulled his commercial certificate for three months following a drone flying incident in New York in which he claimed not to have violated any aspect of FAR 107.

And however much I might think TFRs around stadiums are government overreach, rules are rules. If you’re of a mind to ignore them, you’re an idiot. Stop doing it. 

Comments (22)

" I think the U.K. decision entailed a third kind of risk: the political sort. Looking bad for appearing to be callous about public safety. (If Gatwick shuts down, maybe we should, too.)"

The press demands a political response. They are on the prowl for anybody, for any reason, to appear callous about public safety. Our present parties have cadres of interns who spend their unpaid time looking for the slightest miss-step, safety or otherwise for political gain. Shame on anyone who would argue over a 30 mile radius TFR centered around a stadium. Shame on those who dare to minimize the catastrophic potential of a manned aircraft and drone collision. Drine siting around ORD...shut the airport down..IMMEDIATELY!

That is part of our new normal.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | February 5, 2019 4:52 PM    Report this comment

Follow the money......the national security industry does.

Posted by: kim hunter | February 5, 2019 6:05 PM    Report this comment

And yet we can't secure the border!!!

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 5, 2019 7:03 PM    Report this comment


Agree 100%.

However, in your argument you only mention drone collisions.

In a stadium/venue/TFR environment, a collision maybe a secondary worry. I hate to give DHS any bullet points, but perhaps the primary concern, is any type of "package" that the drone may be carrying.

Posted by: Robert Ore | February 6, 2019 4:34 AM    Report this comment

"And however much I might think TFRs around stadiums are government overreach, rules are rules. If you're of a mind to ignore them, you're an idiot. Stop doing it. "

Unless, of course, you are Uber. Then you're rich.

Rules are like signs. Too many, and they cease to be effective. We've jumped that shark. Disregard for rules among pilots tends to get you weeded out of the club administratively or fatally. If this were true for drone drivers, there wouldn't be so much noise about what would essentially be new models of RC models.

The population, as any intelligent observer should easily predict, now goes nuts for new. They do it because all the old stuff has been ruined by too many effing rules. Yes, even effing is now covered by so many effing rules that kids need both a condom and a contract to get started. Licensing is likely next.

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 6, 2019 8:44 AM    Report this comment

"perhaps the primary concern, is any type of "package" that the drone may be carrying."

The problem is, a TFR doesn't actually prevent this at all. That's the problem with these massive TFRs; they don't prevent the problem they supposedly are there to prevent. All it really does is get harmless (though careless/inattentive) pilots into trouble.

I think it's inevitable that eventually a drone and a 91/121/135 aircraft will collide (or if you count some of the unconfirmed reports, that more collisions will happen), but it was also inevitable the moment there were two aircraft that there would eventually be an air-to-air collision. ADS-B has the potential to limit aircraft-to-aircraft collisions, but ADS-B isn't suitable for inclusion in all of the drones out there, so something else is needed. Maybe drones should have their own ADS-B receivers and automatically fly away from something it detects?

As to the question in the blog, I would take my chances and vote to go. The way I see it, there are still more birds out there than drones that could seriously damage an airliner, and flights don't get cancelled just because a flock of geese landed at the airport.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 6, 2019 8:50 AM    Report this comment

I have multiple thoughts about some of the "more capable" drones.

First, most will probably be flying in "my airspace", ie; 0-500 ft. Yes, in the summer I fly one of those dratted Ultralight Aircraft, perhaps considered by some as a "manned drone". So get them off my lawn.

I know people who do radio control model airplanes. For the most part they are responsible people. Perhaps because they put so much labor into building the models. However, when someone can purchase a "ready to fly" model airplane (drone) sometimes there is a significant lack of responsibility. I've noticed this in many venues of our current society, and frankly, I don't have a clue as to what to do about it. I will observe that when the "board of education" was removed from our schools things began to slide downhill.

As for apprehension of the culprits, it seems to me that the purchased units probably use specific radio frequencies. Position tracking capabilities at locations where drones may be an issue, have drones to go to the operator''s location, get pictures of the offender, and stay on him until the long arm of the law arrives to have a one sided conversation. Catching the operators will do much more than catching the drone.

Would I fly? Yes.

Posted by: David Froble | February 6, 2019 9:47 AM    Report this comment

The drone hysteria is just one more example of the "perfect storm" confluence of factors that come into play with any perceived risk.

Paul touches most of them: Primarily we have the political class's must-do-something imperative driven by fear of being assigned liability due to inaction and modulated by the knowledge that whatever is done need not be effective as long as it is big & flashy. Add in the total inability of the public at large to accurately quantify risk, especially from some new or unfamiliar factor, and will therefore always default to gross overestimation. Sprinkle in the support of peripheral interests such as the people who simply don't like drones, period. Then to stir the mix we have the "news" media, whose own stock in trade imperative is the constant creation and maintenance of public hysteria over anything and everything.

In a decade or two it will all move on, leaving damage & distortion in its wake, and we'll be hysterical over something else.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 6, 2019 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Despite radio call outs, ADS-B in, ATC assistance and Mark II eyeballs, let's get real. All of us in GA ultimately use and are devotees of 'The Big Sky Theory' to keep us from having mid air collisions. Unless we have a GermanWings mindset, we have a vested interest. In the vicinity of busy airports, the other airplanes (threats) are acting in predictable ways and without malice toward one another. That said, who among us hasn't had any NMAC's? Close may only count in horseshoes and hand grenades but ... an NMAC is but a bit of luck and timing away from becoming a mid air. You said that.

Drones are small. So are geese at KLGA. How'd the big sky theory go for Sully? Were the small geese trying to hit his airplane or were they just dim witted? Either way, they hit him. I wonder what the statistical calculation is on TWO engines being taken out simultaneously? Did you calculate that?

Now lets put a nefarious slant on your real world scenario. What if someone was using a drone to purposely target an airliner. Or, what if it's just being flown by one of your gene pool types who doesn't care. Or, what if it does have "a package." Are you trying to tell me -- by using unproven statistical models -- that it's OK because we can't interrupt interstate commerce. Sorry ... I ain't buying it. The UDRI test was frightening to me AND I've seen the results of a tete-a-tete between a goose and a C150 wing root ... likewise frightening. Two feet over and ... dead pilot.

The Pew poll has no relevance. The votes in the waiting area have no weight. If the Captain or the airline or ATC says it ain't safe ... it ain't safe. And comparing huge needless TFR's (I tend to agree) to drones in the same blog is obfuscating the totally separate issues. Maybe "they" used statistics to determine the reaction time vs TFR size?

So now Disney will offer a new "E" ticket ride ... "Dodge the Drones at MCO?" Don't give 'em any ideas.

It's funny. Just over the weekend I thought about you (don't worry!) and wondered when you'd write this blog. You didn't disappoint me. That said, the way you wrote it disappoints me. But ... I knew you'd put it just this way. I mean no personal disrespect in that statement ... you don't have to erase my comment.

ME ... I'm listening to the Captain. It ain't up to me and I'm not into Russian roulette anyways. If I was the Captain ... we ain't goin', either.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 6, 2019 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Eric ... you're a genius!

I'm writing the APP code now. "Larry's Licenses" ... it has a nice ring to it , no? Maybe I could design vending machines, too. In no time at all, I'll have that L-39 I've been lusting over.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 6, 2019 12:45 PM    Report this comment

A few years ago some RC model aircraft flew repeatedly over the runway for a small town airport. I declined to take off in my c182 while they were in the air or might return without me seeing them. Fwiw, the pilots of two helioopters at the field made the same decision. From the comments I assume many peoplehavent seen the youtube video of the drone smashing into a spare mooney wing. Think of what the same device would do to that thin plexiglass above the glare shield. Wanna be in the cockpit if either wing or te glass takes a hit? By the way, all the projections I've seen for the numbers of drones over the US are in the multi-millions within just a very few years. Looking at PAST collisons to estimate future risks is... not gonna get you a passng grade in statistics... :o

Posted by: John Townsley | February 6, 2019 6:26 PM    Report this comment

"The problem is, a TFR doesn't actually prevent this at all."

Don't get me wrong Gary, I agree. Just wanted to point out that it's not always collisions that DHS is concerned about.

No, a TFR doesn't do squat to prevent a ne'er-do-well flying his-her drone over a stadium or less than a mile to an airport.

But educate me on this: As a pilot post 9/11, were there TFRs over the super bowl? Where there TFRs over each and every stadium during a game? Just when and where and how was the TFRs implemented pre 9/11?

Posted by: Robert Ore | February 7, 2019 7:18 AM    Report this comment

Superbowl and some major events yes, to deconflict news and event coverage. Widespread use of TFRs over stadiums, race tracks and power plants came after 911.


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 7, 2019 9:41 AM    Report this comment

Rebar steel umbrellas ☂.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2019 10:08 AM    Report this comment

We've seen a thing or two ... welcome to the "Hall of Claims".

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2019 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Spread spectrum technology is at the heart of virtually all radio control aircraft/drones. It allows an unlimited amount of RC aircraft to be flown within the same airspace on the same frequency with no frequency interference problems. This spread spectrum technology revolutionized any remotely controlled aerial platform, including now, military UAV/drones.

This is why we can see 150 drones at the Super bowl halftime show, operate perfectly choreographed, with no loss of control, yet all operating on the same frequency.
For the same reason we can fly an almost unlimited amount of RC aircraft on one frequency is the same reason it is very difficult to track the drone back to the operator.

I am not an electrical engineer. However, this new remote control technology is hard to trace back to the transmitter. This is why we can see and report the drone sighting but have a difficult time tracing any of the drone sightings back to the pilot. I am sure there is an engineering solution to this. And maybe there are a few folks engaged in that business that can enlighten me(us).

But if it was easy, Gatwick would not have been closed down for 36 hours without an arrest yet of the perpetrators.

And for $50-100 anyone can buy a ready to fly drone, that can be carried in case the size of a tablet with HD video camera that has a 20-30 minute flight time, GPS guided with pre-programmed capability to fly out and back, carrying a small payload, with automated stabilization features allowing anybody with a checkbook/credit card to be a "pilot".

Collisions will be statistical fact. But as stated before, the exponential growth of this field makes any previous probability estimates of minimal, if any, usefulness.

Personally, I have suffered through a "bird" strike by a Canadian goose at 2,000ft agl 4 miles from my departure airport. As statistically minimal as it appears, I have firsthand experience of being part of those statistics. Not fun, not cheap, not easy to forget.

From the dark side, I am sure the next 9/11 equivalent will be using drone/UAV's. These drone sightings near major airports are possibly tests of our "defense" systems, including police/military/government agency responses, press coverage, and the inevitable political manipulations designed to get the general population emotionally, not rationally, involved.

Drone hysteria? It will be when the bad guys use one for terrorism on our soil. We know how effective they are militarily and socially when we use them on someone else's soil. Just ask those who have been on the receiving end in the Middle East.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | February 7, 2019 10:19 AM    Report this comment

"Drone hysteria? It will be when the bad guys use one for terrorism on our soil."

I'm actually surprised it hasn't already been done.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 7, 2019 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Everyone chill! There are about one million small drones out there. The threat is small, a tiny risk. Except on weekends.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 7, 2019 11:28 AM    Report this comment

For centuries, birds have been trained and employed to carry objects.
Birds outnumber drones by about a million to one.
Sully didn't land in the Hudson because of a flock of drones.
Chicken little is best known for his utter lack of perspective. And he's a bird.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 8, 2019 9:57 AM    Report this comment

There may be a million drones now, but if we don't regulate them, there will be a billion in a decade. And, if we regulate them like GA aircraft, we can likely get the number down. :)

Please remember me when you have your mansion in Silicon Valley. I'd like the guest house attached to your private hangar.

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 8, 2019 11:12 AM    Report this comment

I forgot to mention, I've hit a bird in a DA 20 on take off. It looked like a turkey, but the mind plays tricks and it was probably a crow. I was happy to have such a raked windscreen.

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 8, 2019 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Having inflicted ADS-B on the General Aviation populace, why not do it for drones? A device that knows the location of every bit of controlled airspace, every TFR, and the confines of approaches and circling minimums of every airport with an instrument approach. Enter the airspace horizontally or vertically? The device cuts power to the drone, and generates an incursion report.

Right now, with the exception of commercial drone operators, anybody can own and fly a drone with impunity--kind of like having ultralights flying near major airports. The "pilot" can claim "I didn't know--I don't have a license--what is the FAA going to do to me?"

With the ADS-B device--the drone owner has some "skin in the game". The owner faces the loss of his drone--he will get a follow-up from the FAA and TSA. Authorized and compliant commercial operators can still have access.

Compare the cost of the mass-produced automated drone landers to the cost of enforcement by the FAA and TSA, and the cost of shutting down a major airport or emptying a stadium, and the idea is even MORE attractive. Regulation by itself doesn't work--it has to have the compliance of the regulated. Drone non-compliance can be likened to the non-compliance of CB radios way back when--non-compliance became so pervasive that the FCC simply gave up trying to enforce the rule. The technology exists--use it instead of broad regulations.

Posted by: jim hanson | February 9, 2019 9:28 AM    Report this comment

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