Drone Collisions: Maybe Humans Are The Problem


Often when we run a story, someone with intimate knowledge of it will contact us and fill in some details that would have been really valuable in the original piece, but don’t cut it as a separate standalone or follow-up story.

You may recall the story we ran about the police helicopter that hit a police drone in northern Canada in February but only got reported in June. We quoted from the Canadian Transportation Safety Report (TSB) that both aircraft were involved in a “police operation” but what we didn’t know until later is that they were employed over a flashpoint location in a protest against a controversial pipeline through territory claimed by indigenous peoples.

Given the aerial activity over Lafayette Park a few weeks ago, it’s an interesting detail from another country. Politics aside (again, a reminder to be civil in your responses or we’ll cut them), what’s possibly more important for this audience is that the TSB’s description of the damage to the helicopter didn’t really capture the severity of the mishap. It said the pilot felt a vibration and landed safely on a road. It also said there was “superficial damage” to the main blades, the tail boom and tail rotor.

What it didn’t say is that the helicopter was deemed not airworthy and left that remote road slung under a much bigger helicopter and required tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of repairs. That’s not to mention the $100,000 drone that was scattered to the boreal forest below.

That brings up the NTSB’s recent final report on the likely collision between a news helicopter and a drone that we reported on Monday. That chopper was cruising at about 100 knots at 1100 feet over downtown Los Angeles when the pilot heard a noise, thought it was a bird strike and, like the pilot over the bush of northern British Columbia, found a place to land.

Except he wasn’t over spruce trees and beavers, he was over one of the most densely populated places on the planet. What if that drone had hit the windshield or gotten into the engine intake? I know, I know: Life is full of what-ifs. And because there hasn’t been a “serious” collision between a manned and unmanned aircraft yet, I almost didn’t bother writing the LA story. Drone collisions are becoming commonplace enough that in my editor’s mind they don’t really cut it as news and it took a bit of luck to come across this one.

I expect that during the remainder of my aviation journalism career, I or my colleagues will report on a collision that brings down a manned aircraft with casualties. I also believe I will see at least a variation of pilotless passenger airline service in my lifetime. I wonder what that means for the future of manned aircraft operations.

As the technology, including artificial intelligence, develops, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the weak link in integrating drones into the airspace is manned aviation. It’s easy to keep drones from banging into each other with the electronics available today. Humans become the wild card in a heavily automated environment that, given the advances, could eventually become almost perfectly safe if we just keep us out of it.

So, maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Maybe the goal of drone integration should be figuring out how comparatively fallible human pilots can fit into drone airspace, not the other way around.

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  1. Not so long ago we were being told the likelihood of drone collisions with piloted aircraft was very low. Now they have become so commonplace as to not cut it as news? How is the frequency of drone hits not of interest to pilots and passengers? If drones can be easily “programmed” to avoid other drone traffic, they can be programmed to avoid human-occupied aircraft. The question not addressed in this story is: Were any of the drones involved in collisions operating autonomously? If not, the human drone operators are as much a factor as the human pilots for whom a pitch is being made to conform to drone ops and not the other way around.

  2. I agree with Chris. Autonomous and human operated drones could be programmed to avoid human operated aircraft, for example, using the transponder signals or ADS-B out signals from human operated aircraft.

    • Rich,
      Don’t discount the fact that many aicraft operate low level without transponders or ADS-B. In fact non engine-driven electrical system aircraft cannot be equipped with ADS-B “out” due to the wording of the rule, even if the owner wiahes to equip.
      Then we have aerial application aircraft who operate outside of rule airspace that many don’t even have a comm radio much less a transpinder. And if they did their low level maneuvering could throw UAV software for a loop, pardon the pun.

  3. I’ll posit that humans are the problem, but not in the manner stated in this blog. Rather, the problem is that small UAVs (drones) are so easy to operate by common folks, and so comparatively cheap, that anyone without any common sense (or responsibility) can have and operate one. The problem is that drones operate in a realm that has been occupied by manned aircraft for about 100 years now. A realm that has a successful (though arguably sometimes overly complex and beauracratic) framework of keeping thing everything working, provided everyone (or nearly so) follows the rules…and have consequences to pay if they don’t and are caught. But that framework sort of goes by the wayside when people violate it with impunity, as is the case with most errant UAV operations.

    People build houses and developments around airports that have been operating for years, and then complain when there are airplanes around, as if it wasn’t obvious. Yet aviation capitulates to be the “nice guy”. Now small UAVs are getting into the airspace that manned aircraft use. Does aviation capitulate to that, too? Even autonomous manned aircraft won’t solve this when humans operate their small UAVs outside of the boundaries they’re provided.

  4. It’s too bad the few idiots that can’t or won’t work within the FAA rules are ruining the model airplane and helicopter hobby for everyone else. Sounds like it may be time for Congress to re-establish the exemption for models and regulate “drones” as a separate category.

  5. Keeping airplanes out of the airspace below 500 AGL may not be a bad idea, except that the idiots insist on running their drones way up above the current 400 ft limit. How many YouTube videos have we all see of drones several thousand feet in the air playing chicken with airliners? No matter what procedures and regulations the government puts out, there will always be some fools that insist on ignoring them. You simply can’t fix stupid, and more rules just make it harder on the honest pilots.

  6. As far as Class U or 500 feet AGL talk goes that is preposterous. There are hundreds of aerial applicator aircraft operating every day keepingnus fed, clothed, mosquito free and sheltered. All a few feet abobe the tops of their application target. There are also non-engine-driven electrical aircraft that cannot be equipped with ADS-B out due to the wording of the ADS-B rule. These are often at or below 500′ in Class G.

  7. After rereading this article, I am of the impression that what we have here is an indication to hand over drones at the cost of safety. I would file this one under the ”getting sloppy category”.