On a Saturday night in early December, while relaxing at his Martinez, Calif., home, Chinese exchange student Owen Ouyang decided to have some fun. He went out to the front yard and launched a sleek new drone he had recently purchased online for about $1,000.
The 2.8-pound drone, advertised as “easy to fly,” proved anything but. Soon after takeoff, the drone veered dangerously toward a power line. It then climbed more than 700 feet – right into the path of a California Highway Patrol helicopter. A head-on collision was averted only after the chopper’s crew made a sharp right-hand turn at the last moment.
The harrowing episode illustrates a growing safety concern as more and more drones, particularly ones used for recreation, take flight into the national airspace. Their popularity is booming in the U.S., with sales of drones weighing more than a half-pound expected to reach 1 million this year. At the same time, critics fear that chances of a catastrophic collision with a manned aircraft –- possibly even a commercial jetliner –- also are soaring.
“If we don’t act now, it’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a news release.
Some critics focus the blame on the companies that market drones for recreational use, which can sell from under $100 to $3,000 or more. These drones, like Ouyang’s device, can zoom to impressive altitudes but, the critics say, usually lack the navigation and communications systems and design quality needed to ensure safe flying.
Paul Hudson, president of the airline passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org, said drone industry lobbyists have succeeded in coaxing the Federal Aviation Administration to grant “a de facto waiver of basic aircraft regulations to drone makers and sellers.”
Industry officials say fears are overblown, and that they already are adding new safety features. “The record we have to date should speak for itself,” said Brendan Schulman, a vice president of DJI, the Chinese drone company that dominates the recreational market. “The recreational drone world has tens of millions of operational hours, I would estimate, and not a single fatality.”
“This notion that something is going to happen one day is true of everything. … You could say it about lawnmowers,” Schulman said, alluding to federal figures indicating that about 110 people a year are killed by accidents involving lawnmowers, mainly riding lawnmowers.
Still, Feinstein, along with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing legislation to give the FAA broad authority to regulate hobbyists who fly drones. The measure also would direct the aviation agency to require manufacturers of drones built for recreation or business to add safety features such as limits on how high, or where, their devices can fly.
The bill’s supporters include Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the retired airline pilot famed for successfully executing an emergency water landing in the Hudson River in 2009 when his aircraft was disabled after striking a flock of geese. In a press release, Sullenberger said: “The huge upsurge in the numbers of drones and of reckless actions by drone users has greatly increased the risk to everyone who flies.”
Feinstein has vowed to press her case during the debate over the reauthorization of FAA programs that Congress is scheduled to take up in March. The industry appears ready to put up a fight, although much of its focus is on pending regulations for operators of commercial drones.
The Small UAV Coalition – which includes manufacturers such as DJI, along with Amazon, Google X and Intel — spent $890,000 last year lobbying Congress and federal agencies. That was four times the coalition’s spending on lobbying in 2014, when it was founded, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. (UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicles.)
Already, worrisome incidents abound. A report released in December by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone identified 327 “close encounters” between drones and manned aircraft over a 21-month period that ended in September. That included 51 cases when the drones and conventional aircraft came within 50 feet of each other, and 28 incidents in which a pilot maneuvered to avoid a collision.
Drones flying over a dozen wildfires last summer in California forced authorities to pull back firefighting planes in some cases to avoid a mid-air collision. Drones also have flown close to some of the nation’s busiest airports, and approached commercial planes carrying hundreds of passengers.
“The record we have to date should speak for itself. The recreational drone world has tens of millions of operational hours, I would estimate, and not a single fatality.”
— Brendan Schulman, a vice president of DJI, which dominates the recreational drone market.
On the ground, a commercial drone crashed into a street in Pasadena, Calif., last September, kicking up debris that cut and bruised an 11-month-old girl who was being pushed in a stroller. The same month, a student flew a drone over a packed football stadium at the University of Kentucky, crashing into the stands. No one was hurt. In November, an 18-month-old boy in the U.K. lost an eye after being hit in the face by the propeller of a drone flown by a family friend.
Critics say the dangers have been exacerbated by misleading marketing that emphasizes the ease of operating a drone and ignores how things can go wrong. Manufacturers, they say, also have focused more on developing attention-grabbing technical capabilities than improving safety features.
Concern also has emerged that easily available high-flying drones could become a difficult-to-defeat weapon for terrorists. When asked about that threat during a House aviation subcommittee hearing in October, Mykel Kochenderfer, a Stanford University aeronautics expert, replied: “I would have to say there’s relatively little we can do about that now.”
Regulation has been slow to come, however. Aside from a federal registration requirement announced in December, recreational drone users have operated largely under voluntary FAA guidelines dating back to 1981 for model aircraft. The guidelines, among other things, say users should limit flying to 400 feet above ground. But there are no requirements for operators to be trained or for their drones to have FAA certification. The FAA can fine those who fly recklessly, but the agency has rarely used that authority, in part because operators involved in near-misses are hard to track down.
Critics say the makers of recreational drones have used their political clout in Washington to shield themselves from tougher regulations and have acted irresponsibly in bringing to market products that don’t meet basic aviation safety standards.
Among the harshest critics is W. Hulsey Smith, chief executive of Aero Kinetics, a Fort Worth, Texas, company that sells sophisticated commercial drones costing $10,000 or more to automate tasks such as inspecting cellphone towers or refineries. He calls most recreational drones “toys” and says their manufacturers should be using higher-quality designs and installing better navigation and communications systems.
“There is no reason for them to wait to adopt these basic principles of safety other than for greedy profit,” Smith said. These companies, he added, are “putting the public at risk, both in the air and on the ground.”
“The first time we have an incident with a toy drone and a manned aircraft anywhere in the world that causes fatalities, the pending litigation will force the toy drone industry to be responsible, so why should they wait for that to happen?” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the FAA issued a proposal last February that would ease standards for small drones used for commercial purposes such as aerial photography, power-line surveillance and crop monitoring.
The industry-friendly proposal followed intense lobbying: Trade groups and other drone business interests met privately with White House officials more than a dozen times overall in the three months before the rules were proposed, according to records on a White House website. The industry contends the agency has dragged its feet in approving commercial drone operations. So far only about
3,300 4,000 commercial operators have been cleared by the FAA under the current temporary rules. That’s only a speck in the sky compared to the hundreds of thousands of recreational users, but the number of commercial operators could surge after permanent rules are adopted, which is expected in late spring.
Under the proposed rules, commercial operators wouldn’t have to take a flight skills test or get special training. Operators of “micro” drones of up to 4.4 pounds wouldn’t even have to take a written exam. The lack of a training requirement is at odds with the 2009 recommendations of a special committee the FAA established to study integrating drones into the national airspace.
The agency has said the proposed regulations are warranted because standard aircraft rules are “too complex, costly, and burdensome for both the public and the FAA.” In addition, the FAA says, small drones are “relatively easy to control” compared with manned aircraft.
But some experienced pilots reject that notion, saying it is easy for a novice pilot to lose control when, for example, there is signal interference.
“It becomes like a buzz bomb, flying into the wide blue yonder,” said Andy Johnson-Laird, a Portland, Ore.,-based pilot and consultant. He recalled how a technology writer for Popular Science magazine last year crashed a drone into a studio cameraman during a live segment on drone safety on the Fox & Friends TV show.
Johnson-Laird called the lack of a training requirement “unsafe, unwise and unwarranted,” and almost certain to cause drone crashes and injuries. He is on a panel of the standards-setting organization ASTM International that has started developing training standards for commercial drone operators in case the FAA doesn’t adopt any of its own.
The amount of damage a drone can inflict on a commercial or another manned aircraft remains speculative because there’s little or no data on the issue. The FAA only recently began research on the collision hazards posed by drones. A spokesman said the agency hopes to get some findings by September.
“There is no reason for them to wait to adopt these basic principles of safety other than for greedy profit.”
— W. Hulsey Smith, chief executive of Aero Kinetics, a Texas company that sells sophisticated commercial drones, criticizing the makers of “toy drones” that lack safety systems.
In the meantime, experts offer varying assessments. Jim Williams, who until last June was the FAA’s top drone official and who now advises drone companies for the law and lobbying firm Dentons, said it’s “theoretically possible,” but unlikely, that a drone could bring down a commercial aircraft. He said the dangers get “a little more serious” for small private planes and helicopters because, among other reasons, they are more fragile than jetliners.
But other experts such as Scott Strimple, a United Airlines pilot for 25 years and an experienced drone operator, expressed deeper concerns. In a collision with a Cessna or another small plane, “A drone could easily come through the window and kill the pilot. It’s just plexiglass,” Strimple said. “That’s like a frozen chicken coming through at 50 knots.” A drone, Strimple says, also could cause an engine shutdown or a cracked windshield on a larger aircraft.
James Andrews, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said he has little doubt Ouyang’s drone would have caused a serious accident if the chopper had not managed to avoid it. Worst case scenario: the drone comes through the plastic cockpit and takes out the pilot.
“We are talking, at major-league-baseball speed, a brick through the windshield … or through the rotor system,’’ he said.
In December, the FAA began requiring owners of small drones to start registering the devices, a step regulators say will make it easier to hold reckless recreational operators accountable. Owners had until Feb. 19 to register or else face fines up to $27,500.
Some model aircraft operators who are covered by the registration requirement strongly oppose it, saying they are being unfairly lumped together with novice drone owners. One has gone to federal court to block the requirement.
Leaders of the drone industry played an instrumental role on the FAA task force that drafted the registration program. In contrast, they oppose the Feinstein bill. Among other reasons, they say, the requirements in the Feinstein bill – including “geo-fencing” that would prevent drones from flying too close to airports and other high-risk areas – are unnecessary.
“Most of the drone manufacturers are already beginning to do these things anyway,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, whose membership includes drone makers.
Citing news stories of drone operators who have used their devices to help authorities in fires and rescue operations (here, here, here and here), DJI’s Schulman said lawmakers and regulators should “balance the actual risk with the actual benefits” before imposing restrictive rules.
Michael Drobac, a Washington lobbyist with the powerhouse firm Akin Gump who represents drone companies, said drones have been singled out for unfair criticism. “Is there something inherently unique about a technology that is wildly popular with consumers whereby we should be treating it in a way that we don’t treat other technologies that could be as harmful? And my answer to that is ‘no,’” he said.
He and other industry representatives point to an analysis of FAA drone-sighting data by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a 188,000-member hobbyist group. It found that “only a small fraction” of recent incidents were “legitimately reported as ‘near misses’ or ‘near mid-air collisions.’” In some cases, the academy said, balloons, birds and model rockets were wrongly identified in initial reports as drones.
Industry groups argue the key to improved safety lies in education. They have promoted, with the FAA, an informational program called “Know Before You Fly.”
“They have no situational awareness or appreciation for safety. They think it is a game. They do not realize it is for real.”
–Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, on novice drone operators.
Yet even fairly sophisticated aviation enthusiasts can get into trouble. Ouyang, 23, is no stranger to flying: he is close to getting his private pilot’s license. Although he has been taking aircraft mechanic courses at a trade school in Oakland, Ouyang now says he has decided to transfer to a flight school in Los Angeles in the hope of being a commercial pilot.
Drone marketers, Ouyang said, “encourage people that have no experience to buy those drones without knowing it is not a toy.” Ouyang is apologetic about the CHP helicopter incident, but has registered his drone with FAA and is flying again, and taking new precautions.
In December he was flying a popular DJI model – the Phantom 3 Advanced — when his trip went south. Trouble began when Ouyang lost contact with the drone because of signal interference from a power line, and a safety feature, known as the “return-to-home” function, automatically kicked in.
Ouyang had preset the return-to-home to fly at 750 feet so that, if activated, it would avoid buildings and houses on nearby hills. But that wound up putting the drone in the path of the CHP chopper. It was also nearly twice the 400-foot maximum altitude suggested under FAA guidelines.
Ouyang was interviewed by police and federal investigators. His lawyer, Joseph Tully, said he does not think Ouyang will be fined or charged with a crime. “There was no criminal intent nor was there criminal negligence,” Tully said. An FAA spokesman said officials still are investigating whether agency regulations were violated.
One of the most common worries among critics, though, is how drone technology has enabled novices with no background in aviation to fly devices that could create havoc in the air.
“They have no situational awareness or appreciation for safety,” said Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. “They think it is a game. They do not realize it is for real.”
This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.