A recreational drone operator whose device smashed into a U.S. Army helicopter in September flew undetected into a no-fly zone over New York set up to protect President Donald Trump and the United Nations.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday said the drone flew in air space closed because of the visit by Trump, highlighting gaps in safety and security protections involving the devices that are the size of a medium pizza box. Moreover, the pilot was in Brooklyn but the drone was 2.5 miles away, offshore of Staten Island, violating a rule that operators must keep drones in their sight.
“This incident reveals a soft underbelly of drone safety: we’re putting very sophisticated drones in the hands of unsophisticated operators, with no training, certificates, or knowledge requirements,” said Kenneth Quinn, former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration who now works at the law firm Baker McKenzie.
The incident highlighted the need for drones to be treated more like traditional aircraft, such as requiring them to send an identifying radio beacon so they can be tracked, Quinn said. The current situation is “a recipe for disaster,” he said.
The crash occurred on Sept. 21 as light was fading in the evening. The Black Hawk helicopter suffered damage to one of its rotor blades, but was able to land safely. The collision was the first confirmed midair impact in the U.S. between a manned aircraft and one of the millions of drones sold in recent years. Reports of safety incidents involving drones have climbed steadily, and averaged more than 200 a month last summer, according to federal data.
The helicopter was one of two flying in the area as part of the security efforts for the United Nations General Assembly, which was meeting that week. Trump had spoken to the UN two days earlier and security restrictions for his visit were still in effect.
The NTSB report comes as the FAA is wrestling with multiple drone-safety issues. They include whether to allow routine flights over people, which drones should be required to send radio beacons with their identity and location, and how to build a low-level air-traffic system for the small consumer flying devices.
The recreational operator told investigators he didn’t know that federal authorities had temporarily banned all drone flights in New York.
A notification system included with the device, made by SZ DJI Technology Co., didn’t advise him of those flight restrictions, the NTSB said.
While the accident occurred at an altitude of 274 feet (84 meters), the drone operator had earlier flown to a height of 547 feet, above the FAA’s 400-foot flight limit, the NTSB said. When it reached that height the device was 1.8 miles away from the operator, where it would have been difficult to see any other aircraft, according to the report.
“Even though the sUAS pilot indicated that he knew there were frequently helicopters in the area, he still elected to fly his sUAS beyond visual line of sight, demonstrating his lack of understanding of the potential hazard of collision,” the report said.
The leading U.S. group for model aircraft operators called on the FAA to act against the drone operator.
“Careless and reckless operators should be held accountable,” Chad Budreau, spokesman for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said in a statement. “The rogue drone operator involved in this incident violated Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations and a temporary flight restriction, among other irresponsible behavior.”
The FAA regulates drones and has fined operators in the past.
“We will take appropriate action upon the completion of our investigation,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA provides education and resources for operators to safely and responsibly operate their drones.”
The drone was a DJI Phantom 4, a small device made by the world’s largest civilian unmanned aircraft manufacturer.
It’s equipped with what’s known as “geo-fencing,” designed to prevent operators from flying in prohibited zones. However, “this feature is intended for advisory use only, and sUAS pilots are responsible at all times to comply with FAA airspace restrictions,” the NTSB said.
In addition, DJI had temporarily shut off its flight-restriction advisories as it worked to resolve glitches in the system, according to the report.
Even if the system had been functioning, it wouldn’t have alerted the drone operator, the NTSB said. He was guiding the drone with a tablet computer, but it wasn’t connected to the internet and thus couldn’t download the information on the FAA’s flight restrictions.
“DJI believes pilot education is the most important factor to ensure drones share the skies safely with other aircraft, and has led the industry with technology to accomplish this goal,” the company said in a statement.
The company recently began an educational initiative that requires new drone pilots to pass a safety quiz before taking initial flights. The quiz was developed in collaboration with FAA, the company said.
Small drones like the one involved in the New York collision weigh only a few pounds, but they contain metal motors and cameras that can cause significant damage to a jetliner at high speeds, a study commissioned by the FAA found in November. While the study found it was unlikely a drone impact alone could take down an airliner, it could cause enough damage to shut down a jet engine.
FAA incident reports include numerous examples of drones flying close to passenger airplanes or beyond legal restrictions. For example, on Sept. 28, pilots on a Boeing Co. 737-800 that had just taken off from Chicago O’Hare International Airport reported spotting a drone at 9,000 feet altitude. The aircraft is a widely used airliner; the name of the carrier wasn’t identified.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is also looking into an incident in Quebec on Oct. 12 in which a small drone struck a charter flight carrying six passengers. The plane suffered minor damage to its left wing and landed safely.
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