MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A Cessna C-182 airplane headed to Pensacola from Sugarland, Texas, three years ago was cruising at 7,300 feet, some 10 miles south of Mobile Downtown Airport.
Even at an altitude of almost a mile and a half, the plane was outside the reach of drones. The pilot that May afternoon reported seeing a drone pass about 100 feet in front of the aircraft. According to a report maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilot described the small, unmanned aircraft as red on top and dark on the bottom.
It looked like a “blob,” according to the pilot’s report.
Until a few years ago, drones for civilian use were rare. But as the price has come down, they quickly have proliferated for both commercial and recreational use. More than a million recreational drones have been registered with the FAA, and the agency expects that to grow to 3 million by 2022.
Drone encounters with aircraft also are on the rise. An FAA database lists 8,026 incidents since November 2014. The number has jumped every year, reaching 2,308 in 2018, a 36 percent increase since 2015.
FAA records show 54 such close calls in Alabama since 2015, including nine in the Mobile area.
“It’s some very elaborate drones that are out there, and very expensive drones, that have that capability,” said Chris Curry, the president of the Mobile Airport Authority. “But again, I think they only improve on that technology over time.”
Researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute last year demonstrated how much devastation even a small, 2.1-pound quadcopter could cause if it collided with the wing of an airplane traveling at 238 miles per hour.
A test video made by the university shows the drone blasting through the wing, creating a large hole.
“What we shot was a small drone, so that’s more like a hobbyist kind of drone,” said Kevin Poormon, group leader of impact physics at the institute. “And even that did significant damage to a wing structure, where it penetrated into the wing, leading edge and damaged the forward spark. So, larger drones are going to pose even more threats to aircraft if they should collide.”
Poormon, who has spent decades researching the impact of bird strikes, said drones have the potential to be more dangerous since they are made of metal that does not break apart like the flesh of a bird.
Alabama’s drone close calls
The FAA records show only one collision involving a drone in Alabama. That occurred in November 2014 when a “white Phantom drone” struck a pedestrian near Bryant-Denny Stadium during a University of Alabama football game. Tuscaloosa police said the pedestrian was unharmed and that they had arrested the drone operator.
There have been other close calls, including:
- In December, the pilot of a Tecnam P-2006T aircraft taking aerial photographs at an altitude of 2,800 feet three miles south of Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery had to suddenly climb 100 feet to avoid a drone.
- On Oct. 20, a helicopter leaving Children’s Hospital in Birmingham encountered a drone with streamers 500 feet above.
- On Aug. 12, a helicopter pilot flying at 700 feet reported to the control tower at Montgomery Airport that a drone with white and black blades nearly hit him. The pilot reported taking evasive action to the right to avoid a collision.
- On July 12, 2016, an airport police officer in Mobile reported that a drone was operating at 1,000 feet about a mile south of Mobile Regional Airport. The officer asked the FAA if it had approved any operations; it had not.
- On Sept. 20, 2016, the pilot of an Embraer ERJ-135 jet flying from Houston to Mobile reported seeing a drone at 2,000 feet over the St. Elmo Airport in south Mobile County.
- On Dec. 19, 2015, a helicopter landing on the roof of Children’s Hospital in Birmingham encountered someone on the roof flying a drone and attempting to land on the same helipad. The pilot reported that a nurse told him that it looked like the drone tried to follow the helicopter on to the helipad.
One report came not from the air, but the ground. A Coast Guard pilot who was driving to work at the Aviation Training Center in Mobile in August 2015 reported seeing a drone operating too close to Mobile Regional Airport. Mobile County sheriff’s deputies later discovered that it belonged to a company that was shooting a commercial for a local car dealership.
Typically, when aviation officials get reports of drones operating in restricted air space, they notify local law enforcement officials. But Mobile County Sheriff’s Office officials said they do not recall making any arrests related to illegal drone use. Any such arrest would have to be in accordance with state statutes, like reckless endangerment, they added.
“In short, the FAA retains all investigative powers, authority, discretion over any incidents as noted above,” he wrote. “The role of law enforcement is observe and report.”
The FAA is working on a new round of drone regulations on the heels of rules taking effect over the last couple of years. Currently, drones are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet and must stay away from airports. And if someone wants to use a drone for any business purpose, he must pass a test and get a commercial license.
Hobbyists face new requirements
Later this month, the FAA will extend the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability – which seeks to integrate drones into the airspace – to all recreational drone pilots.
The system automates the application and approval process to operate drones in certain airspace. The agency promises the system will r educe the amount of time drone operators must wait for permission to exceed the 400-foot limit in restrict airspace.
Baldwin County resident Tommy Patterson has been flying drones since before they were widely available commercially, making his own out of plywood and yellow-poplar. Not too long ago, he said, made extra money taking aerial photos for Realtors and other clients.
But Patterson said he has been strictly a hobby flier since the new regulations took effect. He said the rules are arduous – similar to the effort required to obtain a pilot’s license.
To me, it just, the economics weren’t there in order to justify licensing and insurance and all of the red tape that went along with it.
“To me, it just, the economics weren’t there in order to justify licensing and insurance and all of the red tape that went along with it,” he said.
But Patterson, who flies his drone on a field in Foley leased by the South Alabama RC Modelers club, said he has no complaints.
“I really think these rules have become necessary. … So I think, you know, for everybody’s safety, we’re gonna have to have some restrictions,” he said.
Not everyone agrees, however. Jonathan Rupprecht, who has fought against FAA regulations in court, argues that concerns over midair collisions have been greatly exaggerated. He noted that nearly all of the drone encounters in the FAA database are nothing more than sightings by pilots and did not even require evasive action, much less cause damage.
By contrast, birds have struck planes thousands of times. An FAA database that tracks those incidents indicates that birds have struck planes in Alabama 386 times since the beginning of 2015.
But birds are common, while drones seem an exotic threat, Rupprecht said.
“When people look at drones and they freak out, it’s extremely disproportionate to how they freak out when birds are flying around. … We hit a lot of other things other than drones,” he said.
The FAA even has recorded 14 collisions between planes and alligators in Florida since 2000.
Even if a drone did damage a plan, Rupprecht argued, the chances are good that the aircraft would survive the collision.
“These aircrafts have multiple redundancies,” he said.
Rupprecht helped a lawyer and model airplane hobbyist challenge an FAA regulation requiring hobbyists to register unmanned aircraft. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who in 2017 was a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote an opinion striking down the regulation. He noted that Congress in 2012 had passed a lawyer stating that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
Wrote Kavanaugh: “Statutory interpretation does not get much simpler. The Registration Rule is unlawful as applied to model aircraft.”
Congress later gave the FAA that authority in a defense spending bill. But Rupprecht said the agency has an incentive to hype drone encounters. Outside experts have a similar incentive, he said.
“You become really cool, and you get invited to conferences,” he said.