An aircraft is more likely to collide with a turtle than a drone. Image via Pixabay

APEX Insight: Should airports become no-drone zones? Today, the question is more about “how” than it is about “if.” Discussions of risk and risk management have amplified in recent months, as the technology and affordability of drones outpaces the rate of bureaucracy.

While governments have debated the regulation of private drone flights for years, the technology (and affordability) of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has far outpaced the rate of bureaucracy. Now large drugstores have drone sections, so anyone can buy one as pundits bicker over whether to call them “drones” or “UAVs.”

Before drone met jetliner, US regulations had already mandated that unmanned flying vehicles (including model planes) weighing more than half a pound be registered with the FAA. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone advocacy group, is on board with these regulations, but wants to make sure the rules are consistent and easy for drone operators to understand and follow: “Though it may not be perfect, this process and final rule shows that industry and government can come together quickly to develop policy.” Meanwhile, the FAA has just this month announced the formation of the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.

Dubai recently announced that drone pilots will have to register their tiny aircraft, and several no-drone zones have been established after wayward drones strayed into Dubai International Airport’s airspace.

The actual risk posed by an errant drone is minimal. Drones under three pounds will cause about as much damage to a plane as would a bird, but that’s not to say that such drones are entirely harmless. Just ask Capt. Chesley  Sullenberger, who had to land UA1549 in New York’s Hudson River after birds flew into and disabled the plane’s engines. Catastrophic bird strikes are extremely rare, but it’s worth pointing out that birds are arguably better at flying themselves than the average human is at flying a drone: despite a drone operator’s best intentions, the only requirement for operating a drone is enough money to purchase one.

Learning to Fly Together

Dubai’s drone legislation focused more on professional drone operators such as videographers and surveyors than on students or hobbyists. Similarly, the DAC’s ethos comes across as being more about figuring out how to make it easier to learn how to operate drones safely, rather than trying to keep them all on the ground. Overall, regulators seem to be presuming a certain level of goodwill on the part of drone operators.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is also entering the conversation, having created a task force to assess the risk of collision between drones and human-piloted aircraft in addition to typical commercial airliners. An EASA press release reads,

The task force will consult the European member states and other relevant stakeholders as well as foreign authorities. At the end of July, it will publish its results … The regulatory framework for the safe operations of drones in Europe currently being developed by EASA already addresses the issue of collision between drones and aeroplanes. A combination of measures are envisaged: operate in visual line of sight, fly under 150 m height above ground, be equipped with identification and geo-limitation functions and be registered. 

The educational and entertainment potential unlocked by drones is amazing; now we can shoot eye-popping aerial videos, which was once solely the domain of a major Hollywood production. Drones can show us the world, hopefully without endangering flesh-and-blood air travelers. So far, the rate of incident has been infinitesimal. Plane vs drone: one. Plane vs turtle: nearly 200. To keep drones and planes at a safe distance will require sincere buy-in from governments, airports and drone enthusiasts alike.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mentioned a drone collision with an airplane at Heathrow Airport. The alleged drone collision is believed to have been a plastic bag. This post was updated on May 9, 1:00 p.m. EST.