Drones: Registration and regulation move forward amid near misses

April 20, 2016  - By

As the popularity of drones for personal use continues to increase, most of the people who have bought them are sensible folks who have registered their vehicles with the FAA (in the U.S.) and other authorities elsewhere. They respect the rules that have been laid down for them to operate — fly below 400 feet (recently increased by the FAA from 200 feet), don’t fly over populated areas or people, and especially stay away from airports and the departure and approach paths for regular aircraft.

So it’s especially troublesome for these law-abiding drone owners when a wildcat operator gets into the approach path at an airport — and it’s really bad if that airport happens to be one of the busiest in the U.S.

Unfortunately there are several examples. For instance, a Lufthansa A380 pilot recently reported that a drone passed approximately 200 feet above the huge A-380 aircraft he was flying while it was at 5,000 feet altitude on approach into LAX (Los Angeles airport). The FAA immediately got on the phone to the Los Angeles Police Department responsible for air support.


Just last week, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was reported to have struck a British Airways Airbus as it descended into London’s Heathrow Airport.

The increase in drones might be compared to an increase in the bird population, and a recent study concluded that the risk to the airspace caused by single, light-weight drones is probably quite low. The figures also seem to say that the probability of bird-strikes is very low — but tell that to Captain Sullenberger who landed a smaller A-320 in the Hudson River when both engines quit after ingesting geese just after take-off.

It seems that good airmanship and eyesight have so far avoided any drones being sucked into commercial aircraft engines — no thanks to a small number of irresponsible drone flyers who are tempting fate by intruding into “no-go” airspace.

Let’s get the FAA small UAV regulations published and give everyone clear rules by which even these people are required to fly their drones. So far, individual section 333 waivers have been granted by the FAA to known characters who apparently want to do things properly. Rules also presumably come with penalties, so we might have some deterrence and more control over wildcat operators.

Along the same lines, the FAA is researching a new approach which could detect drones and find their operators who fly near airports. The FAA has implemented a number of programs and tools to educate drone operators and make them aware of the dangers of encroaching on controlled airport airspace, but even so, such incidents continue to occur.

CACI International has therefore been awarded a Pathfinder contract by FAA to investigate technology that will allow the FAA to “identify rogue unmanned aircraft systems” near airports. The CACI solution aims to provide a proven way to passively detect, identify and track UAS/drones and locate their ground-based operators. So, hopefully we may soon have regulations along with a detection system for rule breakers, and we’ll then need an approach to administer penalties. Much better! But let’s pray in the meantime that we don’t have any drone/Sullenberger incidents.

The FAA has recently predicted sales of commercial UAS will increase from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million by 2020, so we better get a handle on this soon. It’s even forecast that there could be a jump to 2.5 million commercial UAS sold in 2017 should the FAA get its small UAV regulations out and implemented this year, as the agency has announced.

Meanwhile, the FAA has turned to an industry/agency committee to ask if they could relax the FAA’s own rules for very small drones and under certain conditions allow them to fly over people. The committee — known as the Micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (the “ARC”) — met and quickly published a report that came up with four categories of small UAV, Category 1 being less than 250 grams and requiring virtually no additional regulation. Basically, a 250 gram drone falling on a person is considered unlikely to hurt anyone. The other categories do need more restrictions, and manufacturers will need to do significant testing to qualify their drones to satisfy the new requirements.


The latest version of the Amazon delivery drone.

Amazon is also trying to do its part to warn people that a drone might be close overhead. The company recently filed a patent for propellers on drones that could emit warning noises in certain phases of flight. As Amazon progresses toward its plan to deliver parcels to homes, it’s looking to enhance the safety of its future drone-based delivery system.

The object of the patent is to have drone propellers alert people on the ground of the drone’s presence, possibly by broadcasting audible phrases such as “watch out.” Maybe a couple of holes in a propeller might even result in a whistling sound that people would begin to associate with an incoming drone?


Meanwhile, DJI in China remains one of the companies enjoying stratospheric growth as a result of this growing demand. DJI only really surfaced as a drone supplier in the last few years after the release of the Phantom quadcopter, but DJI has actually been around for 10 years. The founder studied in Hong Kong and became interested in flight control systems, which DJI went on to develop. The company started with 20 people based in Shenzhen where there is good access to high-tech talent, but they have now exceeded 5,000 employees. With R&D engineering centers in Asia, Europe and the U.S., DJI now claims to have captured 70 percent of the commercial drone market.

The DJI Phantom 4.

The DJI Phantom 4.

DJI’s focus is to provide drones that are easy to fly, with a great user interface, and then hang high-quality cameras and other sensors on these really maneuverable platforms. Their approach seems to be working — sales are currently growing by around 3-5 times a year, and they also claim to have a valuation of at least $10 billion US!

DJI tells us that its customers have taken 70 million photos, flown 125 million miles, and operated for 3.9 million hours, with applications including agriculture, search and rescue, sports and news broadcasting, real estate, tourism, wildlife monitoring, archaeology, surveying and mapping, education and dozens of others. DJI is also one of the first manufacturers to introduce geofencing using GPS to ensure operation only in areas that are permitted.

With a product range that not only has drones for commercial and industrial applications, but also includes flight control systems, still and video cameras and stabilized gimbals for airborne and handheld camera applications, DJI is very well placed to maintain its strong market position.

AUVSI Convention

Early next month, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) holds its major annual convention in New Orleans, and GPS World will have a contingent of inquisitive people scouring the show floor for news items. So we will have lots more drone stories to tell.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This is posted in OEM, Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).