Safety is, without a doubt, the top priority as commercial drones are incrementally integrated into the skies above the U.S. A collision between a drone and passenger jet is certainly among the worst scenarios imaginable for both stakeholders in the nascent sector and the general public.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned nightmare nearly became a reality. On March 22, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) narrowly avoided a collision with a passenger jet that was en route from Charlotte, N.C., to Tallahassee, Fla. The revelation was made by Jim Williams, head of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) UAS integration office, during a presentation last week at a conference in San Francisco.
According to the FAA, the incident occurred during US Airways Flight 4650 and involved a CRJ2 aircraft flying at an altitude of 2,300 feet that was on approach to the Tallahassee airport. The near midair collision was reported to air traffic control, and the FAA investigated the event, noting that neither the UAS nor its operator could be identified.
Williams provides further details during his presentation.
‘The airplane pilot said the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,’ Williams says. ‘Thankfully, inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage.’
He then explains the danger that the drone could have posed.
‘The risk for a small UAS to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real,’ Williams comments, adding that ‘the 'Miracle on the Hudson' aircraft was brought down by geese that went through the engines.’
‘Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine,’ continues Williams. ‘The results could be catastrophic.’
Williams concludes that the ‘incident is just one of the reasons why it is incredibly important for detect-and-avoid standards to be developed and right-of-way rules to be obeyed.’
Notably, the near collision has not been entered into the Aviation Safety Reporting System database. A spokesperson tells Unmanned Aerial Online that the agency is not sure why that is the case.
‘As far as we know, there was no physical report filed by the pilot,’ the spokesperson states. ‘He reported the incident to air traffic. Air traffic reported it to flight standards, and we sent an aviation inspector out to interview the captain.
‘We're still trying to determine why there was no report filed somewhere,’ he adds. The spokesperson suggests that the FAA's public disclosure occurred well over a month after the incident because of the lack of an actual report.
Descriptions of the UAS also raise questions. During his presentation, Williams mentions that the drone was camouflaged, and the FAA spokesperson says that the UAS resembled an F-4 fighter jet. However, the spokesperson does not seem to believe that a military aircraft was involved in the incident.
‘The Air Force has flown some QF-4 drone aircraft,’ the spokesperson remarks. ‘What would a drone QF-4 be doing at 2,300 feet in the approach to Tallahassee airport?’
Instead, he contends that the issue will remain a mystery.
‘There is no way to determine where the aircraft came from, exactly what it was or who the pilot was,’ he asserts.
The effect of the near miss on the rulemaking process for integrating UAS into the national airspace system has become the subject of speculation in the media.
Writing for Motherboard, Jason Koebler argues that the ‘FAA has been looking for a case to justify its current drone policy, which states that extremely cautious commercial integration of drones into the national airspace is the correct way forward.’
Koebler goes on to claim that, in light of the Tallahassee incident, a source at a U.S. government contractor and drone manufacturer has informed him that ‘the path forward seems murky’ regarding small UAS regulations.
Meanwhile, in an article for Forbes, John Goglia writes that after listening to Williams speak at the conference, small commercial drone operations will not be happening any time soon. In his presentation, Williams states that the process to develop significant regulations will take no less than seven years. Significantly, he makes these remarks after disclosing that a drone nearly struck a passenger jet.
As such, Goglia writes that ‘it seems that no rules are likely to be finalized until the end of 2021 at the earliest and possibly not until 2024.’
For its part, the FAA says that it is impossible to speculate what effect the near accident will have as the agency drafts UAS regulations. Yet, the spokesperson notes that the danger of midair collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft is certainly no surprise.
‘That risk is already known.’