The threat of a hobbyist flying a small, light, remotely piloted aircraft into the path of a commercial aircraft may be overblown due to the rigorous certification standards already in place for other unidentified flying objects—birds.
Those rules cover the airframes, empennage, windshield, engines and certain sensors for birds weighing as much as 8 lb. while the aircraft is traveling at speeds greater than 300 mph. Joining the birds are a new generation of quadcopters, exemplified by devices like the DJI Phantom Vision 2+, a quadcopter that weighs around 3 lb. and has a top speed of 19 kt., characteristics similar to a large gull except for the lithium polymer battery.
Priced at $1,200, the Vision 2+ comes complete with gyro stabilized camera mount, and those who have tested it say it has an operating range of almost 0.5 mi. and flight time of 20 min. Photos and videos can be sent to social media in near real time, raising the temptation for doing something extreme that will go viral on the Web.
U.K. officials have no idea if a similar kind of off-the-shelf quadcopter came very close to hitting an ATR 72-500 in May, an incident that drew sensationalist coverage and spurred headlines including “Airliner nearly collides with drone” when the information was released by the U.K. Airprox Board in October.
The ATR 72 was flying at 1,500 ft. and lining up for an instrument approach to the Southend Airport, east of London, when the first officer “saw a remote-controlled quadcopter very close to the right wingtip,” according to the report. The captain did not see anything. “The co-pilot formed the impression that the quadcopter had been flown deliberately close to the ATR 72 because he had seen it around 100 meters [328 ft.] away as it approached from the right-hand side and made a turn to fly in the opposite direction to his aircraft, around 25 meters away and at the same level,” the board states. There were intermittent radar returns in the area, but nothing definitive.
The board ultimately decided that “there was too little information available to make a meaningful analysis of the occurrence or to accurately assess the risk.” Members said they were “disappointed that someone would fly a quadcopter so high on the extended approach path to an airport, and that despite the valuable assistance of local [unmanned air vehicle] operating companies, no one had come forward to complete an Airprox report.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com