As a C-17 military plane flew above Wright-Patterson Air Force Base earlier this year, its pilot spotted something that wasn’t supposed to be so nearby in the sky — a drone.
The pilot noticed the brown and white drone at around 3,400 feet in the air. Luckily, the pilot didn’t end up having to take any evasive action to avoid the drone, a March report from the Federal Aviation Administration shows.
The incident is one of around 8,631 close calls that have been reported to the FAA since late 2014, the Dayton Daily News found by reviewing nearly five years of FAA data. There have been around 117 drone incidents reported in Ohio since November 2014, at least 11 of which occurred in the Dayton area.
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“It is definitely a problem right now and it’s only going to get worse,” said Jay Ratliff, a locally-based national aviation expert.
Just weeks after the March 13 drone incident at Wright-Patt, three other drone sightings occured on March 26. The sightings prompted an F-16 jet en route to Wright-Patt to instead turn around and head back to Toledo.
A spokeswoman for the 445th Airlift Wing at the base declined to comment on the incidents. The sightings at Wright-Patt were two of three in Dayton reported to the FAA this year.
A pilot flying a Cessna C206 reported March 28 that a drone “came within one wingspan” of his plane. The drone was black, about a foot in diameter and was towing something, but the plane’s pilot was able to avoid it.
The FAA already has several regulations in place regarding civilian drones.
People are required to register their drone if it weighs between just over half a pound and 55 pounds, according to the FAA. Failure to register a drone can result in fines of up to $250,000 and as much as three years in prison, according to the agency.
Each local incident is a prime example of the danger drones pose to aircraft when they get too close, Ratliff said.
Complicating things is the fact that skies are becoming more crowded by drones.
There are around 220,000 civilian planes registered with the FAA while there are more than 1.45 million drones now registered with the agency. The FAA projects the number of drones may triple by the year 2023, according to an aerospace forecast the agency released earlier this year.
“It’s a big concern,” Ratliff said. “It’s also a growing concern because we seem to keep having more and more drones.”
‘Potential for a disaster’
Drones collided with a U.S. military helicopter and a small plane in Canada in 2017. In each case the drone was destroyed and the aircraft only sustained minor damage, according to the National Safety Transportation Board and the Canadian Minister of Transport’s office.
But, a study conducted by the University of Dayton Research Institute showed that not every incident could end so well.
With the help of Sinclair Community College’s National UAS Training and Certification Center, UD launched a 2.1-pound DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter at the wing of a Mooney M20 aircraft at 238 miles-per-hour. Rather than falling to pieces, the drone ripped open the leading edge of the wing and damaged its spar, which is the main structure of support in a wing, said Kevin Poorman, research engineer of impact physics at UDRI.
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“If you compromise the structural integrity of that you could potentially lose the wing,” Poorman said. “That particular drone did significant damage and it only weighed two pounds.”
The drone’s manufacturer pushed back on the 2018 UDRI study, calling it “alarmist” and saying it was “simply inconceivable” for anything like that to happen in real life. At an altitude where a plane would encounter a rogue drone, it would likely be flying at half the speed of the 238-miles-per-hour tested in the UDRI study, the drone maker said.
Despite the disputed study, Poorman said he fears a drone could become a major distraction in moments of crisis. If a neighbor or bystander decided to fly their drone over the scene of a major accident, Poorman said there’s the possibility it could interfere with a medical helicopter trying to transport a patient who has no time to spare.
Ratliff fears that it may be just a matter of time until a drone inflicts significant damage on a manned aircraft. If one were to fly into a plane’s engine, Ratliff said it would likely destroy or at least shut down the engine.
“When you see the type of damage that drones can inflict, it really is something that has concern written all over it,” Ratliff said. “You could have the potential for a disaster to take place.”
‘A little smarter’
No one fix to to control or monitor drones has emerged yet, but experts said several are in the works.
One easy solution could be to make drones that are designed to break apart on impact, Poorman said. If drones reacted more like birds when hitting a plane, Poorman said they would pose less of a threat.
“Instead of making motors out of heavy metal components make them out of a composite or make them smaller in some fashion,” Poorman said. “The idea is to be a little smarter about how we make drones instead of just going down the road of what’s the simplest way to make them.”
With expected advancements coming, such as drone delivery by companies like Amazon and future “air taxis,” Ratliff said a variety of solutions will be needed.
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Keeping track of drones is already “an incredibly labor intensive” endeavor on the part of air traffic controllers, said Ratliff. Air traffic controllers are often still using World War II era technology which Ratliff said is part of the problem.
“It’s the next challenge,” Ratliff said. “If you read any of the headlines…travel around the world is going to double. If we have drone issues now, we’ve got to find a way to manage them now.”
The idea of a “jamming” device that would kill drones flying in restricted air space has been considered for wider use, Ratliff said.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, said he’s “excited” about what Congress has already done to address drone issues. A law established last year compels the FAA to collaborate with the Department of Defense on drone systems, Davidson said.
Despite the changes implemented by Congress, Davidson said he thinks a better solution could emerge from the Miami Valley, given it’s home to Wright-Patt and the Springfield Air National Guard Base.
“I’m positive there’s a technological solution to it and I’m excited to see that the right people are in the right place to have those breakthroughs,” Davidson said. “I think it easily could (come from here) and it’d be fitting given our region’s history.”
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By the numbers
8,631: Incidents reported by the FAA since November 2014.
117: Incidents in Ohio reported to the FAA since 2014.
11: Incidents reported that ocurred in the Dayton area.
1.45 million: Number of drones registered with the FAA.
220,000: Number of civilian planes registered with FAA.