“The main purpose of accident investigation is prevention,” by identifying safety issues and correcting them, explained Dave Keenan, an FAA accident investigator. A drone accident must be reported if there is a serious injury requiring hospitalization or a fatality; if there’s damage of more than $500 to any property other than the unmanned aircraft; or if the aircraft has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 300 pounds or more and sustains substantial damage. The accident must occur “between when the UAS is activated with the intention of flight and the completion of the mission,” he said.
A sequel to Episode I, which took place July 8 and 9, Episode II of the 2020 FAA UAS Symposium was held virtually August 18 and 19. It was presented by the FAA in conjunction with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
Keenan mentioned the September 17, 2017, collision between a DJI Phantom 4 and a U.S. Army UH–60 Black Hawk at 300 feet agl. “There was damage to the Black Hawk’s main rotor blade,” as well as windshield and fairings, he said. “Several of the UAS components were found lodged in the Black Hawk,” which was able to land safely. The UAS pilot did not hold a remote pilot certificate and was intentionally operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), which is prohibited under current regulations; the collision took place 2.5 miles from the drone operator.
“We continually reach out to new drone pilots so they know the rules of the air, and fly safely,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “We do see some inappropriate activity that is concerning at times,” including flight in controlled airspace without authorization. “There is more work to be done.”
“Midair collisions have always been a risk in aviation,” ever since the Wright brothers built a second aircraft, noted Bill English, NTSB investigator in charge, adding that the hazards and risks are real. “We will open an investigation regardless of the severity of the damage.”
Only three collisions between drones and manned aircraft have been absolutely confirmed in the United States, English noted. Beyond the Black Hawk, a DJI Mavic piloted by an amateur drone operator collided with a hot air balloon in Driggs, Idaho. “The list of things he didn’t really understand was quite long,” English noted. And another Mavic collided with a Eurocopter AS350 helicopter as both filmed an off-road race in California.
Many collisions are reported, however, and some likely collisions have not been confirmed. “In many of the cases we can say, ‘This is not a drone at all.’ Usually they turn out to be a bird or wildlife strike,” he said—like the Canadair Regional Jet that struck a turkey vulture at 14,000 feet, damaging a winglet. Lab testing can detect biological residue on an aircraft surface even if no feathers or blood are visible, English explained. When another AS350 sustained a suspected collision, no drone—or biological residue—was found, but an infrared spectrum analysis found polycarbonate plastic residue on the aircraft. “This one probably really was a drone,” he said.
Two weeks before the symposium, English said, a Cessna 172 pilot reported a bird strike in Class D airspace. “This was actually substantial damage to the aircraft.” A ground search revealed a golden eagle with a broken neck—and the remains of a drone. “Inside that dent there were small bits of feathers,” he said, confirming the bird caused the damage. “You cannot necessarily tell the difference between a drone strike and a bird strike just by standing on the ramp and looking. We will follow up on all collision reports to the fullest extent.”
The FAA plans to host its second drone safety awareness week in November to help educate the public about proper operation.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao addressed the Department of Transportation’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) announced in October 2017. “This program has generated a lot of information about how to safely integrate drones into our national airspace. It has also helped the FAA approve more advanced waivers and exemptions, allowing some of the most advanced drone operations in the world,” she said, adding that drones have proved to be useful tools in meeting the challenges of COVID-19 by delivering prescriptions, medical supplies, and consumer products. “The information gathered will help with the formulation of future policy and rulemaking, and it will enable more complex routine drone operations in the future.” She specifically cited BVLOS operations, “the next step in unlocking the full safety and economic potential of this innovation.
“As you know, this pilot program will end in October. But it’s not the end of the department’s collaboration with state, local, and tribal governments on the deployment of drones,” Chao said.
UPS Inc. obtained a Part 135 certificate under the IPP for UPS Flight Forward to make drone deliveries, said Bala Ganesh, vice president of UPS’s Advanced Technology Group. The program provided a joint problem-solving approach, a mechanism to bring local and national interests together for discussion, and a single point of contact in the FAA to navigate internal details. “That was super helpful in how we got things accomplished in the IPP,” Ganesh added.
“We’re still doing a lot of one-off [approvals]. That lack of regular operations is hindering our ability to get public feedback,” added James Grimsley, executive director of advanced technology initiatives for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, another IPP participant. You must have resources, stability, and commitment, he added. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The FAA’s Maria Di Pasquantonio, deputy director of the IPP, said the agency recognizes the need to shift away from exceptions by providing more permissive regulations. “It took a long time for manned aviation to get where it is today,” she noted. “It’s an incremental process.”
Ganesh said the IPP showed that UPS’s concept is economically viable. Moving forward, he wants to focus on BVLOS, remote operators, and the ability for one operator to control many aircraft. “That’s what makes it economically viable,” he said.
“I’m hopeful this program sets a model for the future,” Grimsley said.
Episode I of the virtual symposium drew more than 1,200 attendees. “We shattered that record with Episode II,” said Brian Wynne, AUVSI president and CEO. The second and final episode saw a 25-percent increase, to more than 1,500 participants. The previous record was a live event in 2019, which drew 1,100 people. AUVSI and the FAA currently are planning a live event in Baltimore in 2021.