New research suggests the FAA exaggerates the threat that drones pose to planes

researchers say faa overestimating small drone risk above city
Alik / Shutterstock
In response to the dramatic rise in popularity of the drone industry, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted a mandatory registration requirement for any UAV weighing more than roughly half a pound. The FAA wanted to keep consistent tabs on the growing hobby, particularly to assure none get in the way of the everyday operations of commercial and civilian aircraft. While that’s no doubt a worthwhile and warranted plan, recent research shows the FAA is vastly overestimating the threat small unmanned aircraft actually pose.

By how much of a threat is that, you ask? According to researchers Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond, injury caused by a drone collision would likely only happen once every 1.87 million years. For the sake of reference, the duo analyzed 25 years of what the FAA calls “wildlife strike” data, that is, a list of reports filed optionally by pilots after they’ve experienced an in-flight collision with birds. As they combed through more than 160,000 different reports, Dourado and Hammond found that only 14,314 of the collisions caused any serious damage — in other words, just 11 percent caused damage.

An autonomous drone like Hexo's Hexo+ requires FAA registration
An autonomous drone like Hexo’s Hexo+ requires FAA registration Rick Stella/Digital Trends

In fact, the research also showed that birds crowd the skies (and get in the way of commercial and civilian aircraft) substantially more than drones do, despite reported media claiming the opposite. Moreover, the complete analysis of the wildlife strike data pushed Hammond and Dourado to conclude that the chances of a plane striking a bird are significantly higher than one striking a drone. They went so far as to say “contrary to sensational media headlines, the skies are crowded not by drones but by fowl.”

Further clarifying their point, the researchers note that the most severe aircraft accidents are always the product of an impact with a large bird, with some 398 total injuries ever having been reported. What skews this data even more is the fact 100 of those injuries came during a 2009 US Airways crash into the Hudson River in which a flock of geese was sucked into the plane’s engines shortly after takeoff. Additionally, the 25 years of available data only show 12 fatalities caused by wildlife strikes on aircraft with just one occurring to someone aboard a commercial flight.

“Not a single one of the fatal incidents involved a bird that was reported as ‘small,'” Hammond and Dourado say in their research. “Bird strikes provide an excellent parallel phenomenon for estimating the magnitude of damage a small UAS could cause my colliding with a manned aircraft. To date, a UAS has never collided with an aircraft in U.S. airspace.”

Yuneek's Typhoon Q500 is smaller and weighs less than a typical goose
Yuneek’s Typhoon Q500 is smaller and weighs less than a typical goose Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

What makes Hammond and Dourado’s research seem even more credible is that they aren’t the only ones who’ve dug through data and come up with similar conclusions. In a 2015 study conducted by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, research showed the accuracy of reported near-miss incidents between an airplane and small drone appears to be wildly off. The most strikingly errant statistic concerned just how much of a “close call” each of the 764 near-misses actually were. According to the AMA, just 27 (or 3.5 percent) could feasibly be designated as near misses or near collisions.

“The FAA needs to better analyze and categorize pilot reports to indicate which present serious safety risks (near mid-air collisions) and which could be more appropriately classified as sightings,” the AMA suggests in its research. “Contrary to the FAA’s assertion in its press release of August 12, and the widespread media reporting that followed, the narrative descriptions and notations in the 764 reports suggest that the number of actual ‘close calls’ appears to be in the dozens, not hundreds.”

Hammond and Dourado in their published findings acknowledge that birds and drones are comprised of different materials. They concede that this fact could render drone-aircraft strikes more likely to cause damage than bird-aircraft collisions but stress that they do not have a way to “empirically assess” the assumed damage accrued by a UAV’s rigid materials. Neither of them, however, find the existing evidence compelling enough to deem drones an immediate threat to airspace. Instead, they feel the probability of a collision is at an “acceptable level.”

Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (April 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

SpaceX experiences problem during test, Crew Dragon capsule may have exploded

SpaceX has experienced a problem during the testing of its Crew Dragon capsule. During the engine test firing at Cape Canaveral yesterday afternoon, an unspecified anomaly occurred which lead to plumes of smoke rising from the test site.
Emerging Tech

Beresheet crash caused by manual command, but reflector device may have survived

Details are emerging about what may have gone wrong with spacecraft Beresheet's failed moon landing. A manual command was entered which led to a chain reaction. But NASA still hopes to salvage use of its Laser Retroreflector Array device.
Emerging Tech

The grid of the future will be powered by … giant subterranean bagpipes?

In order to transition to a more renewable-focused energy system, we need to scale up our grid storage capacity --- and our existing methods aren't going to cut it. Could compressed air be the key?
Emerging Tech

The oldest type of molecule in the universe has been located at last

A milestone in the development of the early universe was the combination of helium and hydrogen atoms into a molecule called helium hydride. But strangely enough, this ancient molecule has never been detected in space before now.
Emerging Tech

Mercury’s wobble as it spins reveals that it has an inner solid core

Scientists have long wondered what the inside of Mercury looks like, and they now have strong evidence that the planet has a large and solid metallic core. The data for the new findings was collected by the now-defunct MESSENGER mission.
Emerging Tech

Gravitational forces at heart of Milky Way shaped this star cluster like a comet

Hubble has captured the stunning Messier 62 cluster. The cluster is warped, with a long tail which stretches out to form a shape like a comet. It is thought this distortion is due to Messier 62's proximity to the center of the galaxy.
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!