Earlier this month, it was reported that an unwelcome aviation first had finally occurred: A British Airways jet on final approach into London’s Heathrow Airport hit a small unmanned aircraft system, commonly known as a drone. Regulation-happy bureaucrats and headline-seeking media organizations seized the report as proof that drones are as dangerous to our skies as they would have people believe.
But it seems those early reports got it wrong. Last week, British officials concluded that the Airbus A320 involved in the incident had likely not hit a drone after all. In fact, it is entirely possible that what the pilot reported to be a quadcopter was just a plastic bag drifting in the wind.
How could a trained pilot misidentify a bit of litter as a consumer drone? It’s a mistake that is quite easy to make when you consider the multitude of things competing for a pilot’s attention as he prepares to land a jetliner, and the fact that at the relative speed of a few hundred miles per hour, drones may be visible for only a few seconds before the plane zips past them.
Consider also that the popular class of consumer drones able to rise high enough to enter flight lanes (the British Airways pilot reported the “collision” at about 1,700 feet) are a mere 1 to 2 feet across, making them hard to spot at all beyond a few hundred feet.
These factors combine to make reports of drone sightings and near misses highly unreliable.
Of course, that did not stop the Federal Aviation Administration from relying on these pilot reports as part of the justification for the agency’s rushed, rapid promulgation of its recreational drone owners’ registry.
In fact, the agency cited hundreds of pilot-reported drone sightings in the months leading up to the establishment of the drone registry as proof of the imminent danger posed by unregulated drone hobbyists.
But on closer examination it seems that many of these reports are just as faulty as the one over Heathrow. In fact, a detailed review of 764 such sightings, conducted by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the nation’s leading model aircraft hobbyist group, found that just 27 reports were genuine “near misses.” In only 10 instances did the pilot report having to take evasive action.
Contrary to the mischaracterizations of the FAA, the vast majority of sightings posed no threat to commercial aircraft. In fact, the Academy of Model Aeronautics noted that some of the sightings were of drones that appear to have been operating within the FAA’s own guidelines for safe drone flying. A responsible regulator should have double-checked those sightings and at the very least excluded those that were complying with agency safety guidelines. But trimming the number of drone “incidents” would cut into the scare factor, and that might undercut the agency’s argument that exigent circumstances required it to save us all from a drone disaster.
In actuality, a catastrophic collision between a drone and a manned aircraft would seem to be an exceedingly rare possibility.
Threat Posed by Drones
A recent report by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concluded that, based on bird strike data, “small UAS under 2kg [4.4 pounds] pose a negligible risk to the safety of the national airspace.” The Mercatus analysts estimate that a collision between this class of drone and a commercial aircraft resulting in an injury or fatality to a passenger would likely occur no more than once per 187 million years of drone flight time. And, of course, it is worth noting that the most popular models of consumer drones fall below this 4.4-pound threshold and are, therefore, even less likely to cause damage to a manned aircraft in the unlikely event of a collision.
To date, it has not been confirmed that any drone has struck a manned civilian aircraft. But should such an event occur, there is no reason to believe that it would be automatically fatal to the aircraft. In fact, there is little to suggest that drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds will have a different effect on aircraft than birdstrikes of similar size and weight.
Such strikes are relatively routine. And while they can certainly cause damage to an aircraft, incidents where a single bird strike has brought down an aircraft or caused harm to the passengers on board are vanishingly rare, due, no doubt, to the efforts of the aviation industry to increase the survivability of their aircraft over the decades.
FAA Using Drones to Create More Regulations
Commercial aircraft today are designed to weather collisions, engine failures, and lightning strikes, to name a few things, and return their passengers safely to the ground.
In other words, the state of drones and civil aviation is hardly as bleak as regulators at the FAA have led the country to believe. That mischaracterization allowed the agency to impose by regulatory fiat a recreational drone owners’ registry—complete with outrageously steep civil and criminal penalties totaling $277,500 in fines and three years’ imprisonment for failure to comply—in a mere two months, bypassing the lengthy notice and comment process under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Seemingly bound and determined to go further still, the FAA recently opined to the media that it is a federal felony, punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment, to shoot down or otherwise interfere with the flight of a drone, even one hovering mere inches above your own back yard. The FAA does not seem to mind the fact that Congress wrote the statute that it claims covers drone interdictions to address damaging or destroying manned aircraft.
Neither the public nor their elected legislators should give in to sensationalism and alarmism in the drone space, especially when the result is a bureaucracy run amok, inanely criminalizing otherwise innocent conduct. Yes, drones are new, their numbers are growing, and if handled irresponsibly, they can be dangerous. Yet, a host of laws already adequately address the harms and risks; we do not need a new set of burdensome criminal regulations to deal with them.
As the House of Representatives prepares to debate the issue of reauthorizing the FAA, it should pay careful attention to drone policy and minimize the role of the FAA in the recreational drone space.
In the meantime, the FAA itself should repeal its absurd and ineffectual drone owners’ registry. If neither of these developments happens, it is far more likely that some poor soul will lose his freedom for failing to properly register his drone than it is that a drone will bring down a plane.
Jason Snead is a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.