The Drones Danger

December 20, 2018

THE PROLIFERATION of drones has moved from an “emerging threat,” as I described it not long ago, to an established one. The number of close encounters between airplanes and drones continues to grow. Here in the United States, the FAA says it receives over a hundred new reports every month — and it’s perhaps just a matter of time before we see a collision.

The FAA, with its unquenchable enthusiasm for mind-paralyzing acronyms and abbreviations, now refers to all remotely piloted flying machines as UAS or “unmanned aerial systems.” Whatever you call them, they’re potentially lethal.

The amount of damage a collision might cause depends on two things: the speed of the plane and the size, which is to say the mass (weight), of the drone. The heavier the drone, the greater the potential damage from the impact forces, shrapnel, etc. Most hobby drones weigh less than ten pounds and don’t fly very high, but bigger, heavier machines are out there, and we’ll be seeing more of them: paramilitary border patrol drones; police department surveillance drones; Bezos and his fleet dropping iPhones and toaster ovens from the sky. It’s these larger drones that are of greatest concern. If an operator should lose control of one of these things, or it otherwise wanders into airspace it shouldn’t be in, the results could be deadly — particularly if the collision were to damage the plane’s control surfaces, stabilizers, tail or cockpit. A jetliner traveling at 250 miles per hour (in the U.S., that’s the maximum speed when flying below 10,000 feet), hitting a 25-pound UAS creates about 40,000 pounds of impact force.


A collision with even a lightweight drone could result in serious and expensive problems. A small drone impacting an engine would be unlikely to cause a crash, but it could easily cause the failure of that engine and millions of dollars of damage. Windscreens and other components are vulnerable as well. Small drones are invisible to air traffic control and onboard radar.

Rules have been on the books from the start. For instance, in the U.S. it is illegal to fly a drone higher than 400 feet or within five miles of an airport. But many operators either haven’t known about these regulations, or have flouted them. “The FAA’s near-total ban,” reads one Associated Press story, “has been ignored by operators ranging from real estate agents to farmers who use them to monitor crops.” One way or another, this has to change. The FAA can’t be patrolling our parks and streets, of course, so it’s going to need help from local law enforcement.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to users policing themselves. In 2015, the FAA enacted a mandatory registration process for all UASs weighing more than half a pound. The fee is five dollars. Will all hobbyists comply with this program? Probably not, but its purpose is less about tracking drone users than it is about creating awareness. The problem all along has been mostly one of ignorance: most users whose drones wander into flight paths aren’t trying to be reckless or to cause mayhem; they simply don’t realize how hazardous a collision between and airplane and a drone could be. This mindset needs changing, and the registration program is a step in that direction. More than coming up with technical fixes or enforcing complex airspace rules, we need to encourage common sense.

More info is available on the FAA’s website, here.

A Lepton Avenger drone used by police in Arlington, Texas.

A Lepton Avenger drone used by the police in Arlington, Texas.


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94 Responses to “The Drones Danger”
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  1. Gary Keller says:

    Wrong tact. General aviation needs to go the way of the dodo bird. You’re no longer wanted or needed. Drones will get a fraction of the noise, lead and safety complaints you get. You’re simply a menace.

  2. Tom says:

    You ask if hobbyists will comply with mandatory registration. Actually, they are the only ones who have. The guidance came from the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) because , in their laziness, regulators have chosen to only harass law abiding hobbyists who operate from recognized airfields located where they don’t pose a danger and according to established safety codes.
    The threat comes from those who have no investment in miniature aviation. No one who orders one of those quadcopters online from China or picks it up from a local toy store is told of the need to register.

    This is all analogous to criminal behavior being a pretext for gun laws that only affect those who use guns responsibly .

  3. Matthew Barich says:

    “A jetliner traveling at 250 miles per hour (in the U.S., that’s the maximum speed when flying below 10,000 feet), hitting a 25-pound UAS creates about 40,000 pounds of impact force.”

    It is actually 250 knots, which is 250 nautical miles per hour, or 288 miles per hour.

  4. This is technology and this type of dangers exists everywhere in the world.

  5. Rod says:

    To summarize: At this point, no-one but people with true ill-intent would try to fly drones around a big airport. (But then people with true ill-intent can find hundreds of FAR more promising ways to cause mass death and terror in other ways.) Seems to me that to have even a small chance of success, you’d have to make it hover at the height of the approach slope and along the extended centre-line. You wouldn’t even have to be all that close to the airport.
    Anywhere else around an airport and your chances of doing real damage are very slim indeed.

    The far greater risk is the freaky-fluky one of an Accident: an airliner colliding by complete chance with a drone much higher up and at much greater speed. No ill-intent, just bad luck (and plenty of idiocy on the drone-owner’s part). That’s where I would build into it a constant-broadcast-on-reserved-frequency-GPS-report “transponder” that could not be dismantled without buggering the drone itself. And anyway, we’re talking idiots, not criminals.

  6. Speed says:

    From the Wall Street Journal …

    Counterdrone Technologies Face Slow Ramp-Up at Airports Globally

    Companies that track and deter unauthorized drone flights typically focus instead on nonaviation customers

    Despite world-wide concerns about unmanned aircraft buzzing around airports, suppliers of commercial drone-detection equipment generally have been looking elsewhere for sales.

    With aviation authorities in the U.S., U.K. and other countries urging a go-slow approach to deploying such systems until regulations are in place, industry officials say military facilities, correctional institutions and stadiums currently are the primary customers for civilian technologies to track and deter unauthorized drones.

    Air-safety regulators are worried that counterdrone systems designed to jam radio communications also could interfere with legitimate airport equipment and operations.

  7. Stephen Stapleton says:

    I know as much about guns as I do baseball, which is to say I know enough to go buy a hotdog, but why can’t these things simply be shot out of the sky. People can managed to shoot skeet, why can’t they hit these things? A drone crosses into air space, someone with skill and a good-sized rifle goes out knocks the thing out of the sky. Heck, use a surface-to-air missile for all I care. Yes, it is damaging private property, but that is the price paid for flying it into restricted airspace.

    When I was a kid, we used to build and launch rockets. We were actually encouraged to do this by adults. The space race was on and learning how to make rockets mattered. Still, if our rocket landed out is some pasture, the cows would generally trample the thing into tiny piece by the time we got to it trespassing the whole way. No one complained our private property was destroyed. I lived at the edge of the world then, where Sacramento ended and farm land began. It was also near what was our airport then and I can’t imagine what the traffic controllers did when our rockets went up. We didn’t have to tell anyone that I know of and no one every came out to say, “stop it.” Of course, we weren’t so stupid as to aim them at the airport or a plane, we just fired them off and hoped for the best.

    • Rod says:

      “Heck, use a surface-to-air missile for all I care.”
      I’m not sure you realize what you’re saying here. In most cases we’re talking about a device maybe two feet in diameter and weighing a couple of pounds. You want to shoot a surface-to-air missile at THAT?
      And how are you going to find it in the first place (which this discussion is largely about)?
      To shoot it out of the sky with a gun, the drone has to oblige the marksman by flying low enough. So good luck.

      When you were a kid, we didn’t have a successfully terrorized populace enabling a security/industrial complex to earn Big Bucks. So I think we can expect more Gatwicks.

      As for the practical question of avoiding Accidents, tech-fixes may well become available. And these may price some enthusiasts out of the market. Also, Big-Drone-Paradise may prove unachievable.
      That’s life, I’m afraid.

      • Stephen Stapleton says:

        Thank you, Rod, for answering honestly and directly. I was being factious about a surface-to-air missile.

        Someone must be seeing the errant drones if they are shutting down airports. I understand skeet are something less than half a foot in diameter, so a two-foot or so diameter drone should be easy enough to shoot. Can’t someone patrol the perimeter and shoot them down at will?

        • Rod says:

          “Someone must be seeing the errant drones if they are shutting down airports.”

          Well, you’d think so. I have absolutely no idea what did or didn’t happen at Gatwick. However, wingtip vortices can make funny noises in trees, or WhatEver. And rumours start, and it’s not impossible it was all a form of Groupthink, and nobody wanted personal responsibilty for anything horrible happening, so they took no chances, and it all sort of spun out of proportion into major self-confirming Crisis Mode. I mean, there is certainly no EVIDENCE (photos, devices shot down, whatever), and the police and government are now being mighty cagey in what they say, and it’s perfectly possible they themselves aren’t entirely sure whether there was ever anything at all.

          As for skeet-shooting, you’re standing on a range at the ready, knowing perfectly well the thing is coming in a second or two, and knowing its trajectory by heart. Not quite the same thing.
          And how many marksmen would be needed per length-unit of perimeter fence? And how many people would end up being killed by accident?

  8. Oliver Wiest says:

    “The amount of damage a collision might cause depends on two things: the speed of the plane and the size, which is to say the weight, of the drone.”

    Is it not mass rather than weight or size that will determine the damage done?

  9. Rod says:

    The latest seems to be that senior police officer (detective chief superintendent) has said it’s not impossible that there were no drones at Gatwick. He was being Very Circumspect, but recognizing the reality of human group interaction and putting it together with the apparent Total Lack of Evidence.

    Anyway, even if baseless, this episode should wake people up to the potential seriousness of these things. Perhaps heavy drones should be allowed only Well Away from airports and below altitude X, while even light sport drones could be confined to areas Well Away from airports and below altitude X upon pain of some hideous penalty.

    That’s life (and, clearly, enough people are reckless that others will have to pay the price).

  10. James Wattengel says:

    Just out of curiosity, Patrick
    I know that you have flown to GRU in Sao Paulo.
    Have you herd of or seen any of the numerous hot air balloon that the folk in the nearby favela launch. Usually around June which coincides wit calm flying conditions and local traditional festas (partie)?

  11. Old fool says:

    If I remember high school lessons…. Because the speed of the drone relative to the plane is 250mph, it is easiest to imagine the plane travels at 0 mph and the drone at 250mph

    Mass of drone = 10 pounds = 4.5 kg (kilograms)
    Speed of drone = 250 mph = 110 m/s (metres per second)

    force = mass x acceleration (f = ma). Deceleration is just reverse acceleration
    One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one metre per second, per second

    The tricky part is deciding over what length of time the drone impacts on the plane.
    The shorter the time taken to stop the drone, the greater the force required

    Does it hit and break up (transferring its energy to the plane) in one second, one tenth of a second, one hundredth of a second?
    Does it hit and bounce off (which might happen if the collision is oblique)?

    Assume it’s a head-on collision with the nose of the plane.
    Assume that the metal of the plane is not strong enough to stop the drone dead in its tracks
    ie the drone will smash its way through successive layers of skin, cables, apparatus etc, and take ONE TENTH of a second to impart all its energy to the plane.
    ie the deceleration is from 110 m/s to 0 m/s in 0.1 seconds
    So f = 4.5 x 110 / 0.1 = 5,000 newtons

    That in itself is not a lot – the trouble is with all the critical components it will hit

  12. J. West says:

    I’m curious as to how you found your numbers near the top. How can it create 40,000 pounds of force if the mass is 25 and the acceleration is 250, not assuming that the speed is constant in which the acceleration would be 0. Just wondering

  13. Reader says:

    “Just because no one was killed or shouted something in Arabic, doesn’t mean it isn’t terrorism.” — Stacey


    This is, or was, an act of intended sabotage and terrorism for which there should be zero tolerance. The perpetrator(s) should be locked up for life. No joke.

    • Rod says:

      Yes, but just because potentially large numbers of innocent people could have been killed doesn’t, of itself, make it “terrorism”. Or if it does, then this term has been thrown around so much that it’s lost its meaning.

      For all I know it was “terrorism” (which to me is a political act, or at least — obviously — one aimed at creating terror). But that’s the point: we DON’T know.
      I think it may just have been very sick ego-junkies on a let’s-gum-up-the-works-and-make-headlines ego-spree.

      Either way, I do agree: lock ’em up and throw away the key. It’s public recklessness on a huge and deadly scale.

  14. Wol says:

    Identifying perpetrators is the big problem, especially if a drone is brought down and the operator is not nearby.

    Remember the microdot security feature?

    If all manufacturers had to spray the inside of their drones with microdots containing the details and serial numbers, identifying purchases would at least be a start and at minimal cost. It’s virtually impossible to clean something of microdots 100%.

    At least it would force those who wish harm to build their own machines if they didn’t want to be caught.

  15. STACEY says:

    “We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport,” Gatwick police commander Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said in a statement. “However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related.”
    RPV’s deliberately flown over the airport (not just somewhere in the flight path by mistake), and disrupting operations is not a frat prank. Just because no one was killed or shouted something in Arabic, doesn’t mean it isn’t terrorism. Deliberate disruption to flight ops is pretty bad. The fact that they were helpless to do anything about it speaks volumes and will be noted by those perpetrating this stunt and I’m certain this was merely one, of many tests to come.
    Patrick, are we going to have to jam the frequencies these things operate on around airfield perimeters? Will it even help?

    • Patrick says:

      “…Just because no one was killed or shouted something in Arabic, doesn’t mean it isn’t terrorism…”

      That’s a good point. We’ve come tend to see terrorism in really narrow terms.

      As for frequency jamming, I have no idea if such a thing is practical. If so, that might help keep away drones that are inadvertently flown near airports. But if someone is doing it intentionally, I imagine there’d be an easy work-around. This is probably one of those risks we’ll just have to live with.

    • Rod says:

      Seems to me that “testing” wouldn’t be a very good idea. And that “they” aren’t that stupid. What sort of terrorists (or “terrorists”) are you thinking of? I suggest anyone into serious harm would have gone about it in a much more promising way, and given the authorities Zero warning with “tests”.

      As a passenger I’ve had my eyes zapped by a deliberately aimed laser. There are some pretty uhh.. criminally reckless people out there. Are the potential effects any different?

      If you’re thinking of doing Major Economic Damage and spreading Big Terror, I can think of dozens of ways, none of which have anything to do with airplanes.
      My guess is that these people are on a Power Trip. “It’s ME causing all this chaos and making all these headlines, hee-hee.”

    • Jim says:

      Jamming control frequencies would be expensive and ineffective. It would be easy to avoid by bad actors.

      It sounds like the aerial version of the Trump Wall, so please don’t tell him about this.

  16. Neeta Kulkarni says:

    Well, this is major concern indeed. I do read conflicting news about whether FAA needs or doesn’t need registration for hobby drones. Grabbed below link (info could be outdated). Maybe you can clarify if you have latest on the registration part.

  17. Dronepedia says:

    The time has come for us to build some kind of system.As drone industry becomes significantly conventional, anti-drone systems will need to turn into a common safety measure for personal and business organizations.The systems enables the user to intercept a drone, which enable it to control it to come back home or whatever place to be landed. It is something like “anti virus” for the sky. So only the authorities got access to that kind of technology for safety protection.

  18. Jay Hughes says:

    Explain how the pilots can ‘see’ drones when the pilot is flying at 200 MPH?

    Seems that the British pilots claim to ‘see’ more drones (or flying garbage bags) than most other countries.

    • STACEY says:

      If it is hovering or doing flybys around the airport, I would imagine the tower as well as other ground personnel can see it.
      At this point, it has been demonstrated that whomever is flying an RPV, even without any offensive weapons on board, can bring flight ops anywhere in the world to standstill. Not a good precedent. They/we need to quickly develop some ROE to deal with these situations.

      Also, check out the flight of the West Yorkshire police helo on DEC 20 @1013z

  19. drones says:

    their should be some regulations for purchasing drones and warning for flying them and people should also check drone reviews on this site before buying a cool drone


  20. Julian says:

    Are we completely mad? These things should be banned completely so as to remove as much risk as possible.
    What use is a fine when 250 people are killed in a plane disaster?

  21. Dan Prall says:

    Patrick. Some update info.

    FAA has now released B4UFLY app for both iPad/phone and Android, free. See nearby places.

    No flying within 5 miles is wrong. Small NFZs around airports, but outside, starts at 66 feet, and up to max allowed 400 in under 1/4 mile.

    Standing arrangements can be made, so you don’t have to call every time.
    Note sub-para 5 on page 2. I have done that with the nearby Addison TX tower, saying when and where I planned to fly, max altitude 200 ft, etc.
    shows NFZs. Outside the pink circles, is the 66ft 15 deg zone.

    I’m working with local hospital helipads. Tried to call Air Park Dallas, but no reply. Also no reply from another occasional helipad to the SW.

    I’m in it for the photo/video aspects, but flying takes practice and I prefer to do it close to home. This is what got me started on a recent dive trip.

    Call me responsible, following the regs, and always with safety in mind. If helipads and small airfields can’t be bothered to reply, I’ve tried.

  22. dbCooper says:

    This article touches on a current court case (with some interesting background info) that may determine who actually owns what airspace.

  23. Cliff Davis says:

    Another point on drones and the AMA/FAA working together – our R/C hobby has been subject to NOTAMs for several years now.

  24. Cliff Davis says:

    I’ve built and flown R/C aircraft for years. When flown responsibly – meaning at a dedicated R/C aircraft field operated by a club or group the maintains the site and enforces AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) rules it’s a safe and rewarding hobby.

    The real problem (rift?) started about 20 years ago with the rise of “park flyer” aircraft and the continued improvement in small battery capacity and draw. All of a sudden you could have someone with little to no experience buying a plane they had no business flying (think newbie pilot trying to learn with a P-51) and potentially doing some serious damage to property or people when it inevitably goes out of control and/or crashes in a small park.

    The “drone” thing is just a continuation of that. Folks who are serious about building these aircraft are generally really smart people who do so as a part of a local R/C club. But like park flyers before you have people with more money than sense that can go into a hobby shop and purchase a $400 to $1500 “drone” that they “fly” just about anywhere using questionable sense about things like wind and weather. It doesn’t take much imagination or sense to figure out where that goes.

    The AMA is fighting the good fight in trying to work with the FAA and others to sort out the rules around out hobby, but it’s not going to take many more of these idiots causing loss of life and property to shut down a wonderful hobby for those of us that love aircraft and everything about them.

  25. MS72 says:

    I’m starting to feel like the drone fad is akin to the CB radio fad of the ’70s. Back then, you were supposed to register and get a license but the popularity of the devices ended the regulation on owners. I guess the best way to control this fad is to require MANUFACTURERS to include altitude limiting technology.

  26. Josh says:

    For one, the picture in this article is NOT a drone. It’s a RC helicopter.
    Secondly, there is a reason why most drones don’t weigh much – because they have no reason to weigh much. In fact, the most load a drone will be carrying is a GoPro camera, and even when combined with the 10 pounds-or-less drone, I can’t imagine it weighing much. People are just afraid of drones because of their military cousins and the connotations they bring, but in reality, they are just simple, mostly harmless machines.

    Also, experienced pilots report drones as not being very threatening, as bird strikes (which are probably more dangerous than drones) happen much much much more frequently but doesn’t cause much damage. Also the reported annual 700 sightings of drones by pilots often turn out to be just birds that the pilots mistook for drones. There is very little danger of drones currently, and it is unlikely it this will change in the future as well.

    • Patrick says:

      “…For one, the picture in this article is NOT a drone. It’s a RC helicopter…”

      I take it you mean the thumbnail picture? In any case it doesn’t matter much. It’s still a UAV, and the numbers of all forms of UAVs, big and small, is increasing. There are pictures of heavier drones within the story.

      “…Secondly, there is a reason why most drones don’t weigh much – because they have no reason to weigh much. In fact, the most load a drone will be carrying is a GoPro camera…”

      There are existing drones, plus others under design, that will be of many different sizes and will be used for many different things.

      “…People are just afraid of drones because of their military cousins and the connotations they bring, but in reality, they are just simple, mostly harmless machines…”

      If used safely correctly, that’s true.

      “…Also, experienced pilots report drones as not being very threatening, as bird strikes (which are probably more dangerous than drones) happen much much much more frequently but doesn’t cause much damage…”

      I’m an experienced pilot, as are all of the pilots I work with, and none of us brush off the threat. It is true that bird strikes are much more common, as you’d expect, but most birds hit by airplanes weigh well under one pound. A ten-pound bird — or drone — can cause very serious and expensive damage to a jetliner. Engine ingestion can sometimes result in millions of dollars worth of damage.

      “…Also the reported annual 700 sightings of drones by pilots often turn out to be just birds that the pilots mistook for drones…”

      What are you basing this on?

      “…There is very little danger of drones currently, and it is unlikely it this will change in the future as well…”

      There is SOME danger posed by drones, and without regulatory changes and awareness on the part of users, this will only INCREASE in the future as the numbers of drone users increases. I am not suggesting that YOU are an irresponsible or unsafe user, but others are.

    • Wol says:

      >>There is very little danger of drones currently, and it is unlikely it this will change in the future as well.<<

      There's very little danger in flying in an aircraft, too (mile for mile it's far safer than driving.) But – 911?

      Deliberate use to kill or cause disruption is an entirely different thing to an occasional infringement or accident.

  27. Mo says:

    In a related story, the Forest Service has had to suspend flight operations in support of wildfires several times this year due to drones being spotted in the area. I suspect those pilots have enough on their minds without having to think about drone avoidance.

  28. Miles says:

    Sadly, by the old tradition of regulated aviation, nothing will change until people die. All we can do is wait for the inevitable accident, and watch hours of CNN reporters screaming about how this could have happened. The same is happening for cargo plane incidents, and the same will happen here.

  29. Robert says:

    I would think that within a culture infused with guns as much as ours is, the logical recourse would be to “have at ’em”.
    If I were a gun-nut, and had the appropriate hardware, I’d be looking for them.

  30. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    I think the trick is to figure out how to share the skies safely. Likely some adjustments need to be made to the rules. As with planes, these toys need to be registered so the errant operator can be located and punished when the rules are broken. Here in California, we’ve had problems with these things popping up near wild fires forcing the grounding of important fire fighting planes and helicopters. Even when they are shot down to clear the path, figuring out who to punish is difficult.
    Our world is a crowded place. The days when I could fire my model rockets and fly my RC planes in the huge field near my house are gone (and so is the field, it is more houses now). My freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose and, these days, your nose is rather close by.
    If these toys really are so dangerous to aircraft, then, given their low cost and ubiquity, they seem a perfect tool for terrorism. If a terrorist can $1,000 for one of these things and fly it into a plane and cause real damage, this is a huge problem.

  31. Daryl says:

    On my opinion government should create a law that states that all drones that are purchased come with a book detailing the relevant laws etc. Also is interesting experts` opinion

    • Mo says:

      On the face of it, requiring information to be available sounds like a good enough idea. However, most people (at least most Americans) don’t read the book that comes with anything they buy unless they actually have trouble using it (and in some cases, not even then). I used to work for a “foreign” auto manufacturer, who has a factory in Ohio. I had to relay customer satisfaction information to the designers. There were MANY things that customers complained about that were clearly explained in the owner’s manual. It drove the designers crazy because in their country it most wouldn’t dream of making such a large investment without reading the book telling them how to use it properly. To make matters worse, the only solution that seemed to make any difference was putting “hang tags” explaining certain “features” in the car. Think mattress tags for your car. The dealer was not supposed to remove them. Then customers complained about those, too.

  32. Rod says:

    Given the moneyed interests involved, it wouldn’t be surprising that a major tragedy will have to occur to wake people up. Sort of like climate change — something has to scare people into pulling their heads out of the sand.

  33. Tod Davis says:

    I think that there should be at least a law that states that all drones that are purchased come with a book detailing the relevant laws etc.
    Just as a side story, another threat has emerged to aircraft (in Australia anyway), a regional turbo-prop had to abort the takeoff a couple of weeks ago when it hit a kangaroo which managed to destroy one of the engines.

  34. Flyer says:

    “That said, a large-enough drone hitting an engine could introduce serious complications, such as the engine breaking from the pylon and hitting the tail structure, or pieces penetrating the cabin, etc.”

    I don’t think so. Rolls-Royce specifically designs and certifies all engines are able to contain shrapnel within the nacelle.

    In their destructive testing of engines they strap a bomb to one of the turbo fan’s blades and ignite it. The engine engine blows up but it stays within the nacelle.

  35. justin says:

    helped me with my essay very much. enjoyed reading the article

  36. justin says:

    helped me with my essay very much

  37. Marc says:

    Everyone is so busy calling them “drones”, far to much military cool aid is being consumed in my opinion. RC aircraft/helicopters have been around for decades…. just saying.

    • Jeremy says:

      The thing is that these remotely controlled air vehicles were never as large or had the altitudes capable as today’s military drones.

      • Cynthia K says:

        Good morning Jeremy. My ex (and thus I) were very involved with radio controlled aircraft, back in the day, when we lived in Las Vegas. Aircraft up to 1/4 scale were flown. My ex flew model helicopters that weighed in at close to 40 pounds. The difference between then and now was twofold:
        1) They were flown under Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and restrictions. Very very tight controls.
        2) As they took a tremendous amount of skill (they did not have flight stabilization, with the exception of a gyro for yaw control in some cases)

        They were NEVER flown over humans, and VERY tight frequency controls and model aircraft were flown with a great deal of respect (They could be lethal and they were very expensive — thousands of dollars).

        The situation today is VERY dangerous to both commercial and general aviation (I am a GA single engine rated pilot).

        • Siegfried says:

          That is the big difference.

          A few years back, RC aircraft were the domain of a few enthusiastic people, who were pretty dedicated to their hobby and were using them responsibly and with a good knowledge of what to do and what not to do. Especially the higher quality and more capable models were either very expensive or the result of a lot of work or both.

          Nowadays anybody can afford and easily use a comparably cheap and capable RC “drone”. Sadly this means also a lot of ignorant and irresponsible people use them.

          I personally don’t think that the real drones, military models, would be a problem, although those a really big and powerful. They are also expensive, probably equipped with Mode C transponders and are flown by professionals.

          And when Patric states that he is concerned about one of these “drones” hitting a jetliner, that scares a lot out of me when I imagine one hitting a single engine GA plane. Because anything that might put a jetliner in danger, will truly doom a 150.

  38. Randall says:

    Small drones are a threat to general aviation craft near an airport or at the coast. We see many GA (fixed- and rotor-wing) craft that dip very low when they cross the beach because they can – it is an irresistible joy-ride opportunity.

    We have lots of quad-copter fliers as well. Most of them stay over land, but we saw one recently who was flying off the pier, well out over the water, and as high as 200 ft. Over land, no problem – GA is all 500+ ft. But this quad-copter was higher than the Coast Guard Dolphins we see multiple times a day, as high as the less frequent military training flights, and higher than a lot of the GA and ultra-lights we see over the water. It takes a much smaller bird to bring down a lightplane or helo than a commercial aircraft.

    Also, if a sub-kilo drone strikes a low-flying commercial aircraft, yeah, it probably won’t crash. But is the hobbyist going to pay the million-dollar repair bill?

    The US Naval Aviation has an entire safety program (BASH) devoted to bird and animal strike hazards. Even when you live, a rotor, engine or control-surface strike starts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix.

  39. Gene says:

    There are already rules in place for operating model aircraft contained in Advisory Circular AC 91-57. In addition, the FAA has recently put out guidelines on its website, and is working on a rulemaking regarding commercial use of model aircraft (or in their parlance, Unmanned Aerial Systems.)

    Technically, I’m in violation every time I go out in my driveway to fly my Estes Proto-X because the cat has decided that it must be hunted and killed when I fly it in the living room. But does my local airport control tower (KPAE) REALLY want me to call them when I go out to fly my quadcopter in the driveway for 5 minutes? The runway threshold is ~1 1/2 miles away and my quad is roughly the size of a saltine cracker, and about the same mass. Maybe one of these days I’ll amuse myself and do so.

  40. Alan says:

    Flying machines can be very resilient in some ways and then be surprisingly fragile in other ways. These days I fly hang gliders and in a park environment you can run into RC planes. Or they run into you. A pretty obvious danger but survivable as long as an impact doesn’t break something on the glider including the pilot.

    However what is surprisingly more dangerous are kite strings. If a kite string gets caught on your wing you will crash and it will be very very ugly and a fatality is not hard to bring about.

  41. JohnLM says:

    The ultimate irony showing just how little concern the general public has for these things is that the Google ad on this page was for deals on drones. All you have to do is look at the laser pointer problem to realize there are a lot of a**holes out there that will purposefully use drones to get close to planes. Whether it’s to try and get extreme up close videos to post on YouTube or just general dickheadness with a side of not caring about anyone but themselves, the cheaper drones get the bigger the problem will become.

    I remember when you had to go to mini airports for RC aerial vehicles to use them in urban areas, not so much anymore. I don’t think drones are all bad and it will definitely be the few that ruin it for the many who use them responsibly. I just hope nothing terrible happens before they are taken seriously.

  42. Leandro says:


  43. Rod says:

    I don’t doubt that a catastrophic drone-airliner collision lies in our future. It will probably take that to make people sit up and pay attention.

    A year or so ago an Alitalia 777 did a go-around at JFK owing to a drone near-miss. Only a matter of time.

    Meanwhile, I’d say that light aircraft have a great deal to fear from frivolous drone use now that any dingbat can buy one of the things.

    As for “terrorists”, the pay-off seems too chancy compared with hundreds of other highly effective ways of terrorizing the population that they never seem to avail themselves of. Which kind of makes me wonder …

  44. Gene says:

    There are already rules in place for operating model aircraft contained in Advisory Circular AC 91-57, . In addition, the FAA has recently put out guidelines on its website, and is working on a rulemaking regarding commercial use of model aircraft (or in their parlance, Unmanned Aerial Systems.)

    Technically, I’m in violation every time I go out in my driveway to fly my Estes Proto-X because the cat has decided that it must be hunted and killed when I fly it in the living room. But does my local airport control tower (KPAE) REALLY want me to call them when I go out to fly my quadcopter in the driveway for 5 minutes? The runway threshold is ~1 1/2 miles away and my quad is roughly the size of a saltine cracker, and about the same mass. Maybe one of these days I’ll amuse myself and do so.

  45. MS42 says:

    ok, let’s shift gears from hobbyists that have good intentions… What could a terrorist accomplish with one of these crafts? Could you make a flying bomb, and say, camp out at the end of a runway? Planes aren’t going 250mph there, probably less than 100mph. What’s the probability that a bad guy could smash into it and create some trouble for the pilot?

    • Thomas D. says:

      Please correct me if I’m wrong here, Patrick: on final approach a Boeing 747 is doing about 145 knots indicated airspeed (~170 mph, ~270 km/h). The Airbus A340 is about 30 mph slower. Other jet airliners, would be somewhere around that range of speeds, with single aisle planes (B737, A320 etc.) not being any slower than the big iron.
      Hitting a drone/UAV/model airplane could be a lot worse than hitting a bird, because birds don’t have parts made out of metal.

    • JuliaZ says:

      I have to admit, the terrorist/trouble-making kid scenario is the one that worries me too. The vast majority of hobbyists, even careless ones, value their machines and their ability/freedom to fly them, and respect the big iron. They don’t want to bring down airliners.

      Clearly, however, there are cases where militaries and/or terrorists DO want to bring down airplanes, even in the past six months. Seems like these little metal flying things are a great way to try do it without much risk of detection beforehand.

      Not sure what to do about it, and I’m certain that flying will continue to be the safest method of transport, but it would be great to see a bit more regulation of these things. Perhaps just even simple registration at point of purchase would help. I also wonder what the level of serial number identification is on most of them. It seems like requiring them to have permanent VIN-type numbers would be smart.

      I’m not losing sleep at night over this but it’s certainly an interesting problem.

  46. David M. says:

    I would think a drone/airliner event would be akin to a bird strike. It may damage something, or possibly put out an engine, but is it significant a danger in a “one on one” situation? Flocks of birds have brought down jetliners (Eastern Airlines at KBOS in 1960, Sully into the Hudson, plus others), but unless a 737 strays over an R/C meet, can a small drone really do that much damage to something several orders of magnitude larger and faster? It seems to me that the drone would be the object pulverized and knocked out of the sky here.

  47. Speed says:

    While UAVs (drones) should not be flown where aircraft are likely to be and recognizing that a transport category jet hitting a four pound UAV at high speed can cause expensive damage, birds and airplanes collide more often than most people realize. And such collisions do not result in a crash.

    This week, the FAA Preliminary Accident and Incident Report has bird vs. aircraft incidents. For example …


  48. Dave says:

    25 pounds… that’s one big ‘drone’ – not the sort of thing you just get on mail order and throw in the air. And you don’t pull 25 pounds into the air without a big motor(s) that *would* show up on radar.

    The ones in your screenshot weigh less than 1KG – does that make a difference? I believe bird strike testing uses carcasses of around that weight (frozen too, because birds flying at 30,000 ft would be frozen solid, right?) Not that I’m advocating letting these things fly anywhere near manned aircraft just because the plane might survive it.

    In Australia we don’t have the blanket, head-in-the-sand ban that the USA has. CASA (the Oz FAA) are engaging the community to increase knowledge of regulations and incidents are becoming rare compared to a couple of years ago. They know that enforcement is almost impossible. Like Canada we will soon have relaxed rules for commercial use of sub-2KG craft.

    There are plenty of rules about not flying within x NM of airports, not above 400 ft etc. I live within 5nm of YSSY so my local park is off-limits under CASA rules.

    Some fools will still do it regardless of the rules but the vast majority at the very least don’t want to lose their expensive craft so they fly well away from potential trouble spots. Any hobbyist breaking the rules is not regarded well by their fellows here. We respect the rules because they are reasonable and within them we can still fly.

    The technology of ‘drones’ (I prefer ‘model aircraft’) is advancing rapidly. You can buy ones that obey no-go areas and the technology for transponders is available now:

    And Siegfried (“private UAVs should be completely banned”) – so all model aircraft should be banned? Good luck with that!

    • Siegfried says:

      Hi Dave,

      Probably that overlong sentence was not good English 😉

      Within the control zone of an airport private UAVs should be completely banned. That is a safety thing and safety should be first in aviation. Pretty much what you describe in the rules put forward by CASA. Transport Canada has similar rules.

      In any other place, there is enough room for all of us. Huge transports like Patric is flying, little GA and bush planes like I do and model aircraft like you do 🙂

      And I don’t know either, why suddenly they have to be named “drones”.

    • Jeff says:

      a screen shot?! Man, i was really enjoying the irony of a uav google ad smack dab in the middle of the page. Oh well. : )

    • Radwaste says:

      Please note that commercial aviation radars do NOT display stationary items.

  49. Siegfried says:

    I don’t know whether I shall feel relieved or even more concerned that you share the concerns I have about these UAVs. In 95% of the airspace they are probably no thread as even GA planes usually do not fly that low but in the control zone of an airport or aerodrome, private UAVs should be completely banned. I for my part do not wish to collide with one of these things. They probably do more harm then a bird.

  50. Jeremy Bunting says:

    This is undoubtedly a large issue, and irresponsibly naive operators are going to force legislation on a hobby that previously self-governed. Remote control aircraft have never been a large issue for commercial aircraft in the past, but the proliferation and ease that someone can operate one of these devices is what’s changed. One could also suggest that the skills required to put a model aircraft in the air also required some care and recognition that it was, in fact, an aircraft and not a toy. Model aircraft enthusiasts generally have a huge amount of respect for full scale aircraft, and as a hobbyist myself, I cannot even conceive of putting anyone in danger like that.

    I would also like to mention that the one model that keeps popping up in the news (the DJI Phantom) is far from a 25 lb. vehicle. Fully loaded with propellers and camera, it’s listed as 1160g (2.89lbs). The lithium polymer batteries however, love to catch on fire if you so much as breathe on them too hard. While I understand the threat to commercial aircraft, and I am all for some level of regulation, it is irresponsible operators that are not really hobbyists, but consumers with the ability to purchase a new toy and don’t understand the threat to life and property that they pose.

    I can only hope that people with a fat wallet and disrespect for full scale aircraft will stop piloting these crafts in such an irresponsible way. Until then, it’s like putting a go-cart on the freeway. As a concerned hobbyist, I think I am not alone in fearing that people lump responsible use of these with those that don’t understand how dangerous they can be.

    Common sense makes a huge difference.

    • Dickwaitt says:

      Why not require transponders on all drones over a certain size and/or weight, for example, ten pounds and five feet maximum overall size? That should excuse almost all hobby drones. If a hobby drone is that large it should be identifiable.

      Such a transponder could have a standard pre-loaded “squawk” including a code that would indicate the owner, and possibly its current GPS coordinates. This should be sufficient to alert an air traffic controller of its presence and general location, and an indication that possibly law enforcement should be advised.

      • John says:

        I agree with the transponder concept. That can be registered with the FAA at time of purchase and be made accessable to anyone from the FAA website. As for the small drones, they could bring down a plane at any GA airport. The transponder idea is a good one and may keep the cost of these toys out of the hands of the irresponsible. How much would a transponder cost for these drones?

      • Wol says:

        The drone(s) that has/have caused millions of pounds of cost and misery for tens of thousands of would-be passengers were not just accidental flights by irresponsible owners – they were a deliberate and successful attempt to close a major airport. Whether as a “test” or a one-off remains to be seen.

        It was in breach of the law as it stands today. Making new regulations has no effect at all: only the detection, prosecution and exemplary penalties would. And if found to be terrorist related even penalties would not work.

        Transponders are a non-starter. Quite apart from the weight penalty and swamping ATC radars, once again if someone wants to cause disruption all they have to do is disable it.

        • Rod says:

          To Wol I say:
          1) One may now legitimately ask whether there was ever a single drone at Gatwick.
          2) Seems to me that — even while we’re all busy hyperventilating about terrorists — obviating a drone Accident is worth some effort and expense.

          As for Dickwaitt’s idea, perhaps a mode-C-transponder-like device that, instead of transponding, continually broadcasts, on a set frequency, the cyber-equivalent of “I’m a drone, here’s my position and altitude and ID.” ATC would be alerted ONLY if it came dangerously near an active area. As a result, it would appear on their radar only in such a case (rather than “swamping” their radars, as Wol worries).

          Aircraft could then be steered around it and the owner duly strung up by his whatsits.

  51. MS42 says:

    hobbyists treat their gear like we used CBs in the 70s. Yeah, you were supposed to get a license and follow some basic rules, but most of us just created a ‘handle’ and jumped in. FAA needs to educate the public, schools provide training, and govt. end the near Prohibition that exists today.

    • JK says:

      Seems like the FAA should mandate the use of transponders on UAVs. Do you think this is this feasible?

      • Roger Wolff says:

        Here in the Netherlands someone decided that all “hobby-fliers” (i.e. with people in the craft, be it paraglider, delta or ultralight) should carry transponders.

        The airtraffic co0ntrollers have said since then that they are not ready for us (I’m one of those hobby-fliers) to turn on our transpoders: The software to prevent us from appearing on their displays was not yet ready…. They don’t want to see us!

        “yes, but it makes sure that TCAS works”!

        Apparently TCAS was designed for airliners that fly at > 200 knots, and therefore minutes at a time in “about the same direction” at a more or less stable altitude.

        When I’m being towed into the air, I go from ground to 1000ft in sixty seconds. I’m told TCAS will then warn aircraft overflying the towing area of an impending collision even when there is sufficient vertical clearance. So we’re told to turn them off during towing.

        When a paraglider is free-flying, they need to find thermals to maintain or gain height. Once a thermal is found, you turn to stay in the air that goes up. So now there is a TCAS target that is going up at 400ft/min and does a full threesixty every 20 seconds……

        So….. Having transponders on these aircraft that fly so slow and turn so fast is not really useful: They clobber ATC screens, and confuse TCAS.