Monday, March 28, 2016

Are all these drone near-misses accidental?

Back in 2014 I asked whether small drone aircraft were being contemplated as a terrorist weapon against commercial aviation.  I speculated that the growing number of near-misses between drones and airliners might be a deliberate tactic.

That number has now become a torrent.  As far as I can tell, not a single day goes by without a potentially dangerous incident occurring somewhere in the world . . . usually more than one.  A simple Internet search turns up over half a million returns.  Here's the latest report I've noticed, this one from Britain.

A dangerous drone owner almost brought down an airliner by flying his remote controlled craft within 10 feet of the jet in pitch darkness.

Normally, aircrews can take avoiding action if they spot one of the unmanned drones nearby.

But this is thought to be the first time there has been a near miss at night - and was seen only because it was caught in the plane’s landing lights.

The drone was so close only “providence” prevented a collision with the Boeing 777, carrying hundreds of passengers, says a report.

The incident, classed as a category A risk - the highest short of an actual crash - marks a terrifying escalation of the dangers posed by drones, currently at a record level.

There's more at the link.

I simply can't believe that all these incidents are caused by uncaring and/or unthinking drone owners flying their aircraft where they shouldn't.  Statistically, that would seem to be impossible.  Given the sheer volume of such incidents (which grows every day), I believe at least some - probably more than a few - must be caused by would-be terrorists trying to bring about a collision between their drone and an airliner.

Damaging or bringing down a commercial aircraft with a drone would have an enormous impact, affecting air travel throughout the world as worried passengers canceled their flights.  It would garner enormous publicity for the organization responsible.  What's more, the guilty person(s) would have a very good chance of escaping scot-free, ready, willing and able to do the same thing again.  You don't need a fanatic willing to die for his or her cause.  There are so many unregistered drones out there that I doubt the person or persons responsible would ever be traced, unless they were caught in the act.  The impact between a drone and an airliner isn't likely to leave very much forensic evidence, particularly if the former is sucked into an engine of the latter.

More than ever, I'm glad I don't have to fly commercially very often.



SiGraybeard said...

I can't disagree with your premise, but I'd caution that when you get half million hits on a search, many times those are the same story in different places. The actual number of incidents is likely quite a bit lower, but still a concern.

Sport Pilot said...

Some time back following the 9/11 attack a real concern was in place regarding R/C aircraft. Should some question this R/C aircraft being built and flown then (and now)could be light general aviation size. The current proliferation of quad rotor drones are presently only limited in size and speed. At this time I consider them more of a nuisance to personal privacy but acknowledge their risk to commercial aircraft. A collision with one would be on the order of a bird strike of comparable size. Matters regarding the level of destructiveness though are only limited by the technical abilities and creative malice of the drones operator.

Dirk said...

How much of a payload can a large drone carry? I'll leave figuring out the specifics of that payload as an exercise for the reader.

m4 said...

While I do not disagree with your conclusion, as it is inevitable, I do disagree with using a purely random distribution as your normal. In reality, there's a far increased chance of drone-aircraft interaction from hobbyists trying to get pictures, idiots trying to see how close they can fly etc.

BC said...

Turns out much of the drones vs planes in the past has been FAA scare-mongering so they could expand their domain to target children with hobbies. Look at the people in congress calling for greater regulation of drones and their operators, its the same ones calling for more gun laws.

I can't find the article right now, but within the last few weeks reports have come to light that most of the "pilot observed drone" reports have as much relation to aviation safety as reports of pilots observing automobiles on the road, since the drones they observed were being operated in legally and at a similar distance from the aircraft.

Jonathan H said...

Like BC says, I think at least part of this is scare mongering; the FAA and the AOPA (pilot's association) have been fighting autonomous aircraft for years and emphasizing incidents like this helps their position.
I HIGLY doubt the aircraft was actually 10 feet away from an airliner; I have videos showing much larger military unmanned aircraft getting knocked out of the sky from turbulence when considerably farther from an airliner (it has happened a few times in Afghanistan).
I expect that a number of these so called 'close calls' are actually birds, shadows, or imagined by pilots who are being bombarded with requests to report near misses, maybe even incentivized to report them.
I have seen in the past where near miss reports and safety problems were invented because there was an incentive or a requirement to report them.

Joe Allen said...

The Mirror's unrepentant irresponsible scare mongering already pegged my blood pressure earlier this morning.

The most common "drone", exactly typified by the picture of a DJI Phantom accompanying the article, weighs 2-3 pounds. And, they are comparatively brittle plastic that will shatter on impact, unlike a 10 pound lump of goose.

The biggest danger would be FOD-ing an engine which, especially on approach, is something the pilots already have procedures in place and train for.

The payload of these "drones"? 2 or 3 ounces. I.e. a GoPro camera. Definitely not a "tactically significant delivery system".

Larger multi-rotor remote operated aircraft are made that can fly a larger DSLR or Digital Cinema camera that itself weighs a few pounds, but their price starts in the 5 figures - which helps keep out the yobbos that don't have sense enough not to operate in Class A airspace.

Gorges Smythe said...

I've wondered about that, too.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...all of the engineers have responded I see. This old fart is wondering when the....."cough-cough" (muslimes) will end their practicing and proceed to a more weaponized vehicle?

R said...

Since modern planes are built and tested to be resilient to bird strikes I'm not seeing a huge risk from light weight hobby aircraft made of foam and plastic. I suspect it would actually rather challenging to fly one into a jet let alone damage one. The risk to smaller helicopters may be greater though.

Old Surfer said...

The FAA has used this as an excuse to promulgate draconian restrictions and licensing rules on model airplane flyers who are now required to register any radio controlled model weighing more than 8 oz. Also limits on altitude etc.
Can anyone say huge new bureaucracy and lots of new government employees?

Will said...

Just read Stephen Coonts latest novel "The Art Of War", in which part of the plot has a small group using a hand-launched battery powered drone to take out the president's plane with an EMP device. This action takes place while the aircraft is near an airport.

I see a number of questions about this possibility, of which #1 is whether such an explosive device can be made that small and light.

Clancy's novel didn't seem to bring much attention about using aircraft to destroy US govt buildings, prior to 9/11. I wonder if this book will have more effect?

Bob Mueller said...

My nightmare scenario since 9/11 has been a simultaneous aircraft shootdown.

Put 4 terrorists in a box truck with a number of RPGs or MANPADS. Park that "disabled truck" on the side of the freeway under the flight path of any number of major airports. Synchronize watches, and wait.

Now replace those systems with a cluster of heavy RC aircraft (not these multi-rotor camera systems). Fly one of those into the cockpit or engine of a plane on takeoff with an impact detonator and even a pound of C4. I can see bad things happening. And even if it doesn't bring down a plane, it'll scare the crap out of a bunch of people, and isn't that all they really need to do? Sure, a 777 full of fuel into a neighborhood would be a nice added touch. But they really just need to scare the right people.

Old Surfer said...

Let us hope the local muslims don't read Mr. Mueller's comment. There is a big muslim group here in San Diego, with a big batch of recent"refugees", a downtown airport and nearby an R.C. flying area.
Hitting a plane with a RC model would be hard, but there is FPV (first person view) gear readily available.