Despite headlines suggesting that it's only a matter of time until a drone crashes into a plane, the truth is we know very little about just how pervasive close calls between drones and airplanes are, and we know very little about the severity or risk of such incidents.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration released data showing that airplane pilots made 678 reports of drone sightings and near misses since the beginning of the year, roughly three times more than the total number of sightings in all of 2014.
The narrative surrounding this report was predictable: The FAA said that "pilot reports of close calls with drones soar in 2015," a USA Today op-ed demanded the FAA "ground drones" before "inevitable bloodshed," and the Washington Post led with a story about a "swarm of small rogue drones" that "disrupted air traffic across the country on a scale previously unseen in US skies."
A "large vulture," a "fast moving gray object," a "mini blimp," a "red UAS or balloon," and "a UFO" were all classified as drones in the FAA's report.
Few news organizations truly delved into the FAA's actual data (our own report noted that the FAA has been prone to exaggeration in the past), partially because, often, there's little to follow up on in terms of local news reports or finalized findings on any given incident. This leads to large numbers of "sightings" being miscategorized and drone sightings being construed as truly close calls, according to a new analysis of the data by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. By releasing raw, preliminary information with no follow up or analysis, the FAA's report is flawed at best, misleading at worst.
The AMA is a hobbyist group with 140,000 members. It has the interests of drone pilots in mind, but has traditionally worked very closely with the FAA and is generally considered to be a fair and reasonable entity—in fact, many drone pilots believe that the AMA sides with the FAA too often.
According to the AMA's analysis, since November 2014, there have been only 10 incidents in which airplanes had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a drone, which is just 1.3 percent of all incidents reported by the FAA. The mere fact that a pilot sees a drone does not mean the drone operator was doing anything wrong or that the manned aircraft is automatically put at risk; the AMA notes that many drones could have been flying with FAA permission or within the FAA guidelines.
These numbers are significant, but without further information, it's impossible to say how outside the norm this actually is. We don't know how often, for instance, pilots attempt to evade birds, but we can guess that it's probably much more often than with drones: In 2013, there were 11,399 reported plane-bird collisions.
Most importantly, in more than a dozen of the sightings, pilots said they weren't sure what they saw: One pilot said he saw what looked like a "large vulture;" others saw a "fast moving gray object," a "mini blimp," a "red UAS or balloon," and, in one case, a pilot saw "a UFO." These objects were all classified as drones in the FAA's report.
"It seems the term 'drone' has become the new UFO, applying to everything from balloons and birds to model rockets and mini blimps," the AMA wrote.
The current strategy of lumping nearly all aircraft (and sometimes bird) sightings in a single report about near misses with "unmanned aerial systems" isn't doing anyone any favors, the AMA argues. The drone industry is currently trying to police reckless fliers with a mix of education campaigns and hardware geofencing, which restricts where drones can fly. Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, which is one of the largest hobby drone manufacturers, said he's trying to put an end to the "mass jackassery" that's come as drones become more popular.
According to the AMA report, at least 20 percent of the FAA's cases are never referred to law enforcement, and fines and arrests are rare, meaning there's little incentive for anyone to worry about flying recklessly.
"These are a very few bad actors, they're irresponsible hobbyists that are ruining it for the rest of the industry," Lisa Ellman, a drone policy lawyer at the firm Hogan Lovells who used to work on drone issues in the Obama administration told me. "It's in everyone's best interests for there to be enforcement against these bad actors."
But the FAA has been slow to get its official drone regulations on the books. In the meantime, enforcement has been rare and seemingly random.
Besides UFOs, the FAA's report includes incidents involve military drones that cost millions of dollars, generally fly fully integrated into the national air traffic control system, and, well, are totally different things than the drones you can buy for a couple hundred bucks on Amazon.
What we're left with, then, is a report that tells us very little about what's happening in the skies. In fact, it tells us very little about what pilots are even seeing.
"The FAA's lack of analysis makes it more difficult for the broader community, whether recreational or commercial, to easily identify the most serious safety risks and work toward advancing solutions," the AMA wrote. "There is a flattening of perception that every report is just as important as the next, which clearly isn't the case."