What Happened When (If) a Drone Hit a Helicopter? What the Real Data Shows.

coronavirus and dronesNews and Commentary.  A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report issued last week says that a drone hit a helicopter (probably.)  If it happened, it’s a blot on the drone community for flying in the way of manned aircraft.  But if it happened, it’s further proof that even if drone operators don’t always follow the rules, drones don’t necessarily pose an imminent and life threatening risk to manned aircraft.

According to the NTSB report, a Los Angeles news helicopter was flying in Class G airspace, above 400 feet in altitude under visual rules, when they heard a loud noise.  Originally, the helicopter pilot thought that the noise indicated a bird strike.  Following safety protocols, the pilot made a “precautionary landing.” Examination of the helicopter showed a small dent in the horizontal stabilizer, damage that the NTSB report categorized as “minor.”

Did a Drone Hit the Helicopter?

No drone was found, no drone parts were found, and no drone was seen – but the NTSB report concludes that “Although no drone was located, preventing complete certainty, all the available evidence was consistent with a collision with a small UAS.”

It may be true, although many such incidents have proven later to be caused by other flying objects.  If so, it may indicate that a drone operator wasn’t following regulations, but the report points out that even that isn’t perfectly clear:

The reported collision occurred in Class G airspace, but higher than the 14 CFR Part 107 regulatory maximum of 400 feet agl for small drones. A provision in Part 107 allows for operations above 400 feet if the drone is within 400 feet laterally of a tall structure. Downtown Los Angeles was approximately 1⁄4 mile away from the collision site, therefore, although the altitude and location are not authorized for drones without a waiver, it is not inconceivable that a drone operator could have been operating near the tall buildings, and deviated or exceeded the lateral requirements.

If the collision occured, it’s an unfortunate incident and indicates the need for unmanned traffic systems, which are developing quickly.  It shouldn’t, however, be used as an example proving the inherent danger of drones: or the “criminal” or “clueless” behavior of drone operators.  If a drone hit a helicopter, the event provides one more piece of evidence that when drones do hit manned aircraft, the manned aircraft wins.

The Risk of Drone Collisions

Evaluating drone risk is difficult. Different studies, the vast majority of which rely upon simulation, have evaluated the risk as anything from “minimal” to “extreme.”  These studies don’t provide adequate information on which to base regulation.  In fact, the only data that we do have results on the rare occurrences when drones actually do collide with manned aircraft: and that has yet to show serious damage.

That’s not a coincidence, says Paul Rossi of Nine Ten Drones, a N.C.-based drone training and services company. Rossi has a military background in aviation maintenance: and as an unmanned pilot, he’s focused on safety.  Rossi says that in his experience, “commercial off the shelf (COTS) drones just don’t have the size or weight to cause catastrophic damage to a manned aircraft.”  As systems become more complex, and larger drones become more common, the situation may change – but “the current commonly used aircraft aren’t likely to down a manned aircraft,” says Rossi.

Pilots, manufacturers, and regulators around the world agree with him: but it’s hard to prove.  Real drone incident data is the only way to truly evaluate risk, and right now, it’s hard to come by.  It’s a point that manufacturers like DJI have been making for years as the industry struggles to win over public opinion and reach a point of risk-based regulation.

The Part of the Operator

Nobody in the drone industry would argue that education and a culture of safety shouldn’t be a priority.  The FAA is investing in. education, as is the drone industry.  Community-based organizations like the AMA and commercial organizations all agree that training pilots is important.

Expecting every operator who can purchase a drone to follow the rules exactly isn’t necessarily a realistic goal, however – any more than it is to expect all automobile drivers to follow every traffic law.  It’s a standard that cannot be achieved despite the industry’s best efforts, and it shouldn’t be the requirement before both recreational and commercial drones are enabled to work to their potential.

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Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.

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