Drone ‘close call’ reports under scrutiny

Study finds flaws in what the FAA calls ‘near misses’

- Bart Jansen

Hobbyists who scrutinize­d reports to the FAA of alleged close calls with drones found that pilots reported near misses in only a small fraction of the cases, according to a study obtained by USA TODAY.

The study found that of the 764 close-call incidents between drones and other aircraft, only 27 were actually described by pilots as a “near miss.”

Pilots reported taking evasive action 10 times, according to the study by the Academy of Model Aeronautic­s, an advocacy group for 180,000 hobbyists.

The group scrutinize­d the reports that FAA released from Nov. 13, 2014, through Aug. 20 out of concern that hobbyists were unfairly blamed for drone safety problems.

None of the sightings involved a mid-air collision, after one suspected incident was debunked as a bird strike. Several crashes involved military drones, rather than the civilian and local-government drones that FAA regulates.

“What it reflects is a much more complex equation than merely calling these things close calls or near misses,” Richard Hanson, the model group’s government-affairs director, told USA TODAY. “We’re hoping the report will put it back into perspectiv­e.”

Drone sightings sparked wide- spread concerns in August because the FAA reported that the number was on pace to quadruple this year, from 238 in 2014.

The release was titled “Pilot Reports of Close Calls With Drones Soar in 2015.”

Airline pilots are increasing­ly reporting drones while approachin­g airports, raising the specter of mid-air collisions. For example, pilots reported a cluster of sightings in August at 2,000 feet while approachin­g New Jersey’s Newark airport.

Firefighte­rs in California temporaril­y suspended flights in June, which allowed wildfires to spread and cause more damage, after seeing drones near their aircraft at 10,000 feet.

And a small drone crashed Jan. 26 on White House grounds, sparking federal security con- cerns. But the Academy of Model Aeronautic­s found that many drone sightings reported to FAA were vague, mistaken or involved remotely piloted aircraft that were following the rules.

The study found 27 cases, 3.5%, where the pilot reported a “near miss” or “near collision” or “NMAC,” for near mid-air collision. The study also found several reports where the pilot “isn’t reporting a near mid-air” or “did not consider it as a NMAC.”

“I think it should be better defined where the problem lies,” Hanson said.

Hobbyists are supposed to fly lower than 400 feet high and commercial drone operators lower than 500 feet. All are supposed to fly during daylight hours within sight of the remote pilot, and at least 5 miles from an airport.

“I think it should be better defined where the problem lies.” Richard Hanson, Academy of Model Aeronautic­s

 ?? SEAN GALLUP, GETTY IMAGES ?? Pilots’ drone reports have soared.
SEAN GALLUP, GETTY IMAGES Pilots’ drone reports have soared.

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