Drones and Airplanes: A Growing Threat to Aviation Safety

Drones and Airplanes: A Growing Threat to Aviation Safety

May 30th, 2024

On March 23rd, 2024, United Airlines Flight 1003 narrowly avoided a collision with what was initially thought to be a drone shortly after takeoff from San Francisco. This incident, while thankfully without major consequences, highlights a growing concern: the increasing number of near misses between drones and airplanes.

Near misses between passenger aircraft and drones are not isolated events.

Since 2021, TSA reported over 2,000 drone sightings near U.S. airports, including incidents at major airports nearly every day. From 2021 through 2022, TSA reported that 63 drone incidents caused pilots to take evasive action, including four that involved commercial aircraft. From January to March 2024, the FAA reported 200 drone sightings near U.S. airports, with 6 requiring pilots to take evasive action.

  • In July 2022, flight operations were halted at Reagan Washington National Airport due to a drone sighting.
  • In June 2023, an unauthorized drone caused a 30-minute ground stop at Pittsburgh International Airport, according to TSA officials.
  • Earlier this year in January, a British Airways plane carrying 180 passengers nearly collided with an illegally operated drone over Kent, UK, at an altitude of 9,600 feet while traveling at a speed exceeding 250mph.

These incidents expose a critical issue: reckless or illegal drone operation poses a significant threat to aviation safety.

Case in Point 1: San Diego and Montgomery-Gibbs Airspace

SkySafe identified 34 drone flights within controlled airspace near San Diego International Airport and Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport during a single month (March 16 - April 16, 2024). Notably, 27 of these flights originated from a single drone, climbing to heights reaching 8,871 feet above the legal limit and directly intersecting flight paths of commercial jets flying into San Diego International Airport (SAN) and smaller, private planes flying into Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport (MYF). The drone, ascending from below, was virtually invisible to pilots.

Number of Flights Reached by Drones Came Close to 2 Flights

The drone operator repeatedly broke local and national airspace rules: 1) flying through the 300 ft LAANC height limit, 2) flying through the 400 ft legal U.S. limit, 3) flying through two controlled airspaces (SAN and MYF), 4) threatening two flight paths, and 5) coming within 1.2km of aircraft. Given most commercial drone manufacturers typically restrict their drones from climbing above 400 ft, this drone was likely altered to go higher, suggesting deliberate disregard for regulations and a potential criminal intent.

Case in Point 2: Detected Drones at Takeoff and Landing at San Diego International Airport

As another example, this drone tracking video captured by SkySafe's sensor network illustrates the extent of the problem. Each red line in this video represents a drone that is virtually invisible to pilots as they approach San Diego International Airport for landing. A collision with any one of these drones could be damaging and even deadly.

The Urgency of Action

The lack of meaningful counter-drone legislation since 2018 leaves a critical gap in protecting our skies. While airports are required to have response plans, advanced drone tracking and intelligence solutions are crucial for:

  • Early detection: Identifying drones of various makes and models, including new entrants to the market.
  • Tracking and location: Pinpointing the drone's origin and operator location for intervention and apprehensionpotential prosecution.
  • Forensics: Providing geo-location data and flight logs for further tracking and identification and potential operator prosecution.

Looking Forward

As drone technology continues to evolve, prioritizing safety requires:

  • Future-proof solutions: Software-based systems that adapt to the ever-changing drone landscape.
  • High detection rates: Ensuring comprehensive identification of all potential threats.
  • Actionable intelligence: Enabling proactive measures to detect rogue drones, and, apprehend, and prosecute the irresponsible operators operators behind them.

The near miss involving United Airlines Flight 1003 serves as a stark reminder. We must prioritize robust drone detection and mitigation strategies to safeguard our skies and ensure the safety of passengers and crew.