Study Confirms Small Unmanned “Drones” Pose Increasing Risks to Aircraft

In a newly published study, researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University detail results of a small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) detection study, performed near Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida.  Looking at flights of drones during the 13-day sampling period from just one manufacturer, DJI, the College of Aviation faculty research team detected 73 individual unmanned aircraft that made almost 200 separate flights.

The data gathered suggests that more than one in five of these drone flights presented an unmitigated risk to nearby manned aviation operations,” the study concluded.

In late 2017, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report detailing the first confirmed midair collision between a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) and manned aircraft in the United States. In February 2018, a video of a sUAS maneuvering around a passenger jetliner on approach to a Las Vegas airport went viral on YouTube. Just months later, a helicopter instructor pilot reported performing evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with a sUAS, resulting in a non-fatal crash.


From 2014 to 2018 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded 6,117 reports of near encounters between manned and unmanned aircraft within the National Air Space.


Such close encounters are bound to increase, given the number of unregulated sUAS in the air. The FAA has projected that the small model hobbyist UAS fleet in the United States will “more than double from an estimated 1.1 million vehicles in 2017 to 2.4 million unmanned aircraft by 2022,” and “the number of remote pilots is set to increase from 73,673 in 2017 to over 300,000” in the next four years.


In a newly published study, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University researchers shared results from a sUAS detection study performed near Daytona Beach International Airport (DAB) in Florida. To gather their data, the research team installed and gathered data with a DJI AeroScope, a UAS detection platform that rapidly identifies unmanned aircraft communication links and gathers flight status, paths and other information in real-time.


During the 13-day sampling period, researchers detected 73 individual DJI-manufactured drones that made 192 separate flights in the Class C airspace around the airport. The study looked at these small flying platforms from only one manufacturer, so there were most likely many more flights of sUAS near the airport over the 13 days that were not cataloged.


Researchers also collected valuable operator behavior data, including common sUAS flight locations, times, and altitudes. Operational data was compared against published FAA UAS Facility Maps to examine potential risk areas. Additionally, sUAS detections were compared against historical ADS-B information to examine for potential midair collisions, yielding several notable case studies.


Surprisingly, only 12 percent of these small unmanned aircraft were flying near unimproved land and parks. More than three-fourths were flying in residential neighborhoods or near single-family homes. Another 21.5 percent hovered above commercial, industrial or public properties, the researchers reported.


“This was an unexpected finding,” said Assistant Professor of Aeronautical Science Dr. Ryan Wallace, lead author of the study. “We thought most drone operators would choose relatively open areas offering a safety buffer from hazards, but that wasn’t the case.”


The researchers compared detected sUAS activity with locations and altitudes prescribed by the FAA’s UAS Facility Maps.  According to the FAA, “UAS Facility Maps show the maximum altitudes around airports where the FAA may authorize Part 107 operations without additional safety analysis.”  More than 20 percent of the 177 flights were flying higher than the safe altitude prescribed for their operating area.  Moreover, researchers compared detected UAS operations to historical manned aircraft flight data, revealing several near encounters.


“These data suggest that more than one in five sUAS flights presented an unmitigated risk to nearby manned aviation operations,” the authors concluded.


The Embry–Riddle researchers suggest that drone manufacturers should more frequently incorporate a technology called “geofencing,” which would prevent sUAS from accidentally entering restricted areas.


Geofencing is a virtual barrier using a GPS (Global Positioning System) network and LRFID (Local Radio Frequency Identifier) connections such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth beacons. This boundary is determined by a combination of hardware and software which dictates the parameters of the geofence, i.e. a drone app and an unmanned aircraft, but not all drones are using this technology.


The study’s authors also proposed that the FAA could consider making more information on sUAS activity available to aircraft pilots.

The study, “Evaluating Small UAS Near Midair Collision Risk Using AeroScope and ADS-B,” was published by the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace (Vol. 5, Issue 4). Co-authors were Embry–Riddle faculty members Kristy W. Kiernan, Tom Haritos, John Robbins and Godfrey V. D’souza.

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