AMA Delves Through FAA Drone-Sighting Data: Numbers Down This Time

Posted by Betsy Lillian on June 09, 2016 1 Comment
Categories : UAV Safety

According to its most recent analysis on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) data on possible drone sightings by manned aircraft pilots, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has reported a month-over-month drop in the statistics since last August.

AMA’s analysis on the FAA’s previous data was released last September. AMA said there were 764 possible sighting recorded from Nov. 13, 2014, to Aug. 20, 2015; now, it cites 582 from Aug. 21, 2015 through Jan. 31, 2016.

The group partially attributes the drop in sightings to the continued push on education for safe drone flying, including the Know Before You Fly campaign, which was founded by AMA and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

As it did in its September report, AMA says the FAA’s latest number of “‘near misses’ and ‘close calls’ is a small percentage of the overall data set.” In addition, it says many sightings “may involve people flying responsibly and within current guidelines.” In fact, the group says it identified 38 sightings where the unmanned aircraft was operating below 400 feet.

AMA also notes that several sightings were not definitively reported as drones and may have been other objects: e.g, balloons and birds.

“As we found in our first analysis, the FAA’s drone data continues to be a ‘catch all’ for any object spotted in the sky. And once again, consistent with AMA’s prior findings, only 3.3 percent of the drone reports in the FAA’s latest dataset contained explicit notations indicating near misses or close calls,” AMA explains in a blog.

The full analysis can be found here.

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  1. I would be cautions about reading too much into this. While I understand and indeed support what AMA hopes to achieve by making such an announcment, my fear is that it doesn’t take much effort to identify some rather glaring flaws in this “analysis.”

    First, the data itself is far from complete. The FAA’s first data ran from November of 2014 through August of 2015, and the most recent release ran from August 2015 through January 2016. Thus the first data set is data for all 50 states and captures spring and summer warm weather months. In contrast, the most recent release, which also contains national data, is heavily biased toward seasons where it’s reasonable to assume far fewer people are out flying drones. In fact, if one looks a high population generally fair weather state like Florida, one sees that there is mathmatical trend upward over time.

    Secondly, if one combines all the data, there is a troubling trend that is not mentioned at all in the “analysis.” For each calendar month were there is data for multiple years, the reported sightings are up considerably year over year. In November 2014 there were 21 reports, while in the same month in 2015 there were 92 (a 338% increase); in December 2014 there were 22 reports, while in December 2015 there were 77 (a 250% increase); and in January 2015 there were 26 reports, while in January 2016 there were 93 (a 257% increase).

    Lastly, the “analysis” reliese heavily on the presence or absences of very specific phrases in what is obviously a freeform text field completed by air traffic controllers who are simultaneously engaged in controlling full scale aircraft. One doesn’t have to look at very many of the entries to see that there’s little consistency in how events are recorded, thus making the “analysis” unreliable and conclusions drawn from it weak – at best.

    It would have been wise to wait until there was two full years worth of data, where the environmental factors detailed above will be averaged out, before reporting that the number of events has decreased.

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