Category Archives: Drone Safety

FAA UAV Symposium

I don’t have the resources to attend the 2016 FAA UAS Symposium, but I did send an eMail to Joseph Geni (Joseph.ctr.Geni@faa.gov) in the UAS Integration Office with questions that should be addressed at the Symposium:

First:

Why do Section 333 exemption operators have to jump through so many damned hoops and dead-ends to make a commerce flight near an airport when a hobbyist can simply tell the tower and fly? It make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The Section 333 Exemptions Conditions states that “The UA may not operate within 5 nautical miles of an airport reference point…unless a letter of agreement with that airport’s management is obtained or otherwise permitted by a COA issued to the exemption holder”, but ATC facilities are told that the operation requires a COA. Period. Don’t ask. In an FAA Memorandum from Heather Hemdal, Director of Air Traffic Procedures to ATO Service Center Directors, ATO Air Traffic Service Directors and ATC Towers and Federal Contract Towers (December 23, 2015) the memorandum says that non-hobby operations require a COA and that an airport manager or ATC do not have the authority to give permission for those flights.

The policies are clearly in conflict and simply make it impossible for a commercial operation to occur within five miles of an airport.

Complicate this with the fact that the FSDO offices are impossible to reach by phone. I had a question about a commercial drone flight I was involved with last month and wanted to talk to an sUAS specialist. My local FSDO never returned my call, so after three days, I went FSDO-shopping. I called four FSDO offices, and in every case was met with voice-mail. In every case I left a return call number. Only ONE returned my call, two days later. How is a certificated pilot supposed to do his due-diligence if the FSDO won’t even return phone calls?

This cannot contribute to safety. The commercial operator is discouraged by this tar-pit of conflicting policies. I venture that the vast majority of commercial sUAS flights less than 100 ft and one to five miles from an airport are being made, literally, “under the radar”.

This can’t possibly be what the FAA wants to encourage.
Second:

How many of the 3000+ Section 333 operators are actually reporting zero flights as required in Paragraph C of the “blanket” COA?
C. Reporting Requirements
1. Documentation of all operations associated with UAS activities is required regardless of the airspace in which the UAS operates. NOTE: Negative zero flights) reports are required

Really? the FAA wants me to report that I am not flying?
Summary:

This byzantine patchwork of conflicting and nonsensical policies do not contribute to aviation safety in the slightest. I posit that they actually diminish aviation safety by encouraging operators to simply ignore those conflicting and nonsensical policies.

Can’t we all get on the same bus here?

Thank you for the opportunity to put this issue before the FAA UAS Symposium.

Stephen Mann
Admin, The333.org

400 ft.

How often do the news articles say that “there’s a rule”, or that flying over 400 ft is illegal. Both statements are false, but surprisingly many people believe it.

The 400 ft limit is based on two sources. First is the FAA itself when the agency issued an Advisory Circular, AC 91-57, on june 9, 1981 (and later reissued as AC 91-57a on September 2, 2015). In the AC, the FAA said “Do not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface”. But there’s two problems with using this as evidence that 400 ft is a rule. First, an Advisory Circular is not a rule. The FAA has never prosecuted a pilot for not following advice, though it is often cited as a reason for pursuing charges under 14 CFR §91.13 – “Careless or reckless operation”. Second is the first line in the AC: “This advisory circular outlines, and encourages voluntary compliance with, safety standards for model aircraft operators”.

The updated AC 91-57a doesn’t mention altitude, but it does say that a model aircraft operation “is determined with reference to Section 336 of Public Law 112-95 [The FMRA]”.  Section 336 of the FMRA does not define an altitude, but it does say :”… the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community- based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization”. Why didn’t they just say “AMA“?

400 ft above – what?

The FAA said in the original AC 91-57 “above the surface”, so it’s pretty clear what they mean. They don’t expect you to fly as if you have a terrain following RADAR on your 2-pound drone, but use common sense. If you take off from a hilltop climb to 400 ft AGL then fly over a valley, you are more than 400 ft “above the surface”. The rule for manned aircraft (14 CFR §91.119) says “an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft”. So, considering that AC 91-57 is designed to keep hobby aircraft away from manned aircraft, if you stay within a 2,000 ft radius of your takeoff point, you are unlikely to meet a manned aircraft.

Despite the lack of clear laws on how high we can fly our small UAS, there can still be some pretty serious consequences to the choices we make. The advice is to stay below 400 ft, and it is good advice.

I am not a lawyer and anyone who takes my post as legal advice is a fool.

There is no Unregulated Airspace in the USA

Many people, especially those who should know better, are confusing unregulated with uncontrolled airspace. There is no unregulated airspace in the USA but controlled airspace generally begins at 500 ft because ATC radar is unreliable at low altitudes. Generally. The FAA regulates airspace from the ground to 60,000 ft.  When anything leaves the ground the flight is governed by FAA rules exclusively. Controlled airspace is that airspace where ATC can provide radar coverage and separation of participating aircraft. That is aircraft on an IFR flight plan and VFR aircraft with a transponder requesting ATC services.

The answer to the question of how much airspace do you own is not answered in the 1946 case U.S. vs. Causby.  The decision held only that “A servitude has been imposed upon the land for which respondents are entitled to compensation under the Fifth Amendment”.  The case was remanded back to the Court of Claims because “the court’s findings of fact contain no precise description of the nature or duration of the easement taken”.

How much airspace is owned by the landowner and where does “navigable airspace” begin were not decided by Causby. That was not the case before the Supreme Court. The case was simply one of a taking of property in violation of the fifth amendment.

Opinions of the Supreme court are longer explanations by the Justices’ of the reasoning behind a particular action. In the opinion the court said that “The landowner owns at least as much of the space above the ground as the can occupy or use in connection with the land”. One justice’s opinion also used the description of flights as low as 83 ft merely as an example. But these were the rationale behind their decision, and not included in their holdings.  [1]

Navigable airspace is a legally undefined term. In my research I have found a few SCOTUS decisions that reference navigable airspace in their opinions, but none have defined it.  Medical Ambulance Helicopters and  Firefighting aircraft frequently fly below 500ft.  Small UAS aircraft, including personal drones, are advised by the FAA to fly below 400 ft.  These aircraft  are navigating in the National Airspace System, so that would make airspace below 500 ft navigable airspace even though it is in uncontrolled airspace.

An overflight of 100 ft or even 50 ft over your typical home is probably not trespass. If a drone stops to watch a teenage girl sunbathing nude in the backyard, then the drone operator is likely violating trespass laws regardless of the altitude. We don’t need a definition of how much airspace does the homeowner own because there are already plenty of state and local laws that cover trespass – we don’t need any more rules. These laws are technology agnostic, meaning that it doesn’t matter if you’re using a drone, a kite or a camera on a pole. Trespass is trespass.

nude_sunbather
There is a nude sunbather in this Photo.

Shooting down a drone would likely violate weapon discharge ordinances and would also be a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 32 – ‘Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities’. Shooting at a drone 200ft altitude is not protecting anything. Period.

Unless the drone shoots first.

 

[1] I am not a lawyer. Nothing I write or say should be taken as legal advice. Anyone who does is a fool. If a lawyer does read my posts and can correct my opinions, I would respect and enjoy the feedback. I am easily trained.

The panic, here, is completely out of any sort of proportion to reality.

 

I was asked if there has been any study about serious injuries or deaths from small UAS, also known as Drones. I looked, and couldn’t find anything in the US. (In November, 2015 an 18-month-old child in Worcestershire, UK lost one of his eyes when a drone operator lost control of his remote-controlled drone.)  I looked deeper by inquiring with aviation lawyers and insurance companies and still couldn’t find anything. What I did find is that there have been no serious accidents or deaths in the US from small personal drones. None.

I did, however, find these statistics.

Today (if this is an average day in the US):
1560 people will die from Cancer
268 people in US hospitals will die because of medical mistakes.
162 people will be wounded by firearms in the US.
117 Americans will die in an automobile accident.
98 people in the US will die from the flu.
53 people will kill themselves with a firearm.
46 children will suffer eye injuries.
37 will die from AIDS.
30 people will die in gun-related murders.
18 pilots will report a Laser Incident
3 General Aviation airplanes will crash in the US.
0 people will be seriously injured or killed by a small drone accident. [1]

Zero. Why are so many people so terrified of zero? Zero is a safety record that any other segment of aviation would be jealous to have.

Small UAVs do not pose any significant risk to anyone. “Dangerous” and “invasion of privacy” concerns are ridiculous, driven by paranoia borne of ignorance and propagated by irresponsible reporting.

There is absolutely no factual evidence to support the fear and ignorance around small personal drones. There have been more than a million hours of flight of small drones, yet there is not one verifiable report of a drone crash in the US that resulted in a serious injury as defined by the NTSB [1] . (A Band-Aid is not a serious injury- See CFR 49 §830.2).

Yes, people have been injured by personal drones. Mostly the operators are receiving lacerations from trying to hand-catch a drone rather than land. Enrique Iglesias’ well-publicized on-stage performance last year is an example of such an injury. Catching the drone was part of his stage act making him a participant in the flight. There have been fatalities from model aircraft, but again, mostly the aircraft operator and not someone not involved in the flight. And none of the fatalities involved personal drones. All but one was a gas-powered model helicopter with three-foot long aluminum propeller blades.

The word “Drone” invokes a visceral sphincter tightening in people who enjoy more authority than they actually have and invokes the natural human tendency to regulate every fear out of existence.

So, where’s the blood and mayhem to justify the perception that small personal drones are a threat to public safety?

 

[1] CFR 49 §830.2 contains the definition of “Serious Injury” that the FAA and NTSB use in their aircraft and vehicular accident statistics. It is important to hold small UAS accidents to the same metric, otherwise comparisons are meaningless.

 

FAA Drone Sightings Database

Much is made by the press about the FAA Drone Sightings Database,

but little of what the press says is based in fact.

Drone SIGHTINGS are not incidents.  They are just what the report says: Someone thought they saw a drone.

The vast majority of the reports included the words: “NO EVASIVE ACTION”. Hardly what the press is describing as: “There’s a drone – we’re all going to die”.

Keep things in perspective. Of course there will be more sightings, there are more drones. Duh!

But, as in their previous report (November 2014) the threshold of making the list is really low.  And some of the drones reported are clearly high performance aircraft unseen by anyone in the civil drone world, or at altitudes which are impossible for personal drones because their batteries would be exhausted by the time they got there.

There is also the pilot report of a collision with a drone. Complete with blood, guts and feathers. Does your drone quack?

The FAA database are unfiltered reports of sightings. Originally intended to be an internal document, they were forced to go public with it in a FOIA challenge in 2014. I am still reading through the reports to find the silliest one. Last year that crown went to the report of a drone in a tree.

Runner-up candidates:
“OBSERVED UAS WITH BLUE LIGHTS AT 12,000 FEET, 30 SE OF JFK.”
Uh, that’s over the Atlantic Ocean – 30 miles?  No civil drone can fly that high and that far.

Or this one:
“PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: ILM/UAS INCIDENT/1203E/CMH ATCT ADVISED MILITARY SAM460, UNKN TYPE GULFSTREAM, REPORTED GREEN AND RED HOURGLASS SHAPED UAS PASSED 100 – 200 FEET OFF RIGHT SIDE OF ACFT AT 10,500 FEET 8 E ILM. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. LEO NOT NOTIFIED.”
A drone at 10,500 ft? How fast is the Gulfstream going which normally cruises at Mach 0.8? And he identified a drone with that much clarity.

And the third candidate:
“PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: HAYWARD, CA/UAS INCIDENT/0359P/NORCAL TRACON ADVISED REDDING AERO ENTERPRISES 494, CESSNA C402, VNY – HWD, OBSERVED A UAS, 3-4 FEET OFF WING, 8,000 FEET 30 SE HWD. UAS PROCEEDED TO FOLLOW ACFT TO HWD. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. LEOS NOT NOTIFIED.”
Please, what UAS will be able to “follow acft to HWD” for 30 miles at more than 150 kts?

But the top contender for a silly report is:
“PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: SFO/UAS INCIDENT/1340P/NO CAL TRACON ADVISED SOUTHWEST 638, B737, REPORTED A UAS OR BALLOON AT 10,000 FEET 6 NW SFO. NO DESCRIPTION GIVEN. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. SAN FRANCISCO PD”
I think saw something at 10,000 ft – it must be a drone.

The drone reports are being used to promote fear mongering. What is disturbing is how every report is called a “close call” even when the reported “drone” is hundreds or even thousands of feet from any aircraft.

Most disturbing for many reasons is the fact that most of the “sighted” drone activities apparently violated no FAA rules. There is no FAA rule that drones must fly below 400 ft – it is a guideline. There is no FAA rule that a drone operator must obtain ATC permission to fly near an airport – the policy is that the hobby aircraft operator only must notify ATC. There is a PROPOSED rule (Part 107) which would require registration of the aircraft and certification of the operators, but it is not the rule today. Yet the local FAA and Police personnel act as if Part 107 was already law.

Where’s the blood and mayhem to justify the perception that small personal drones are a threat to public safety?