USA – SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Flying a drone is one of the easiest, and now cheapest, ways to get a bird’s eye view of almost anything. Yet as more people catch the drone bug, those unmanned aircraft are showing up where they shouldn’t.
“Drones can cause major concerns for aircraft, not just helicopters, but fixed wings, especially smaller aircraft,” says helicopter pilot Dan Oppenheim, who flies LiveCopter 3 for KCRA.
He’s been flying for more than a decade and says that unmanned equipment like drones are becoming more of a worry for people in the air.
“It might not sound like a big deal,” Oppenheim said, “But for perspective, if you take a drone that weighs about as much as a cell phone, think about the damage that might be caused if you were to take a cellphone and throw it off an overpass and hit a car at highway speeds. Well, drones are heavier than a cellphone. And we’re generally increased flight faster than highway speed. So it can cause major damage.”
When Oppenheim says major damage, the realities are stark. An Army Blackhawk helicopter took some major damage in 2017 while patrolling over the New York area in 2017. The collision and damage sparked an FAA and NHTSA investigation.
Damage can certainly be avoided when drones are flown safely, in the proper areas. Yet when a drone flies into dangerous territory, like in higher airspace where planes, helicopters and jets fly, or into restricted areas like airports, the damage can be significant.
Researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute in Ohio took a normal type of drone you might get for personal use and shot it at full-flight speed at an airplane wing.
The damage to the wing was significant. The drone tore a hole through the leading edge of the wing, possibly even making its flight capabilities questionable at that point. This could be the danger of a drone flying where it should not.
It’s not hard to see how an incursion can happen. Near the Sacramento Executive Airport, there are a lot of single-family homes. The typical no-fly zone for a drone would be within a four-mile radius of the airport.
Yet if someone from those homes flew a drone they got for Christmas, for example, they’d already be violating the restricted airspace. And as the University of Dayton found, the damage of flying in an improper area can be significant.
KCRA 3 Investigates obtained data from the Federal Aviation Administration for incursions by unmanned aircraft systems into restricted flight zones. In other words, flying where they should not be.
In California, the number of incursions on average over the past three years is 300 to 400 a year. By June of 2021, there were already 226, which is a marked increase from previous years. Those numbers include seven in Sacramento, two in Modesto and one in Auburn this year alone.
“They’re cheaper, they’re more accessible. So we are seeing a slight increase in the incursion into our airspace,” said Jon Heggie with Cal Fire’s Riverside division. He says when a drone is in an area where they are fighting a wildfire, all firefighting aircraft are grounded immediately.
“Firefighting is a dual approach for both the air and the ground,” Heggie said. “So in both resources, both aerial and ground resources rely on each other. So when we don’t have those air resources, it’s very challenging for the ground resources to you know, establish anchor points and to aggressively fight the fire. So it really puts us at a disadvantage when we have to ground those aircraft.”
Drones are creating this problem more and more for Cal Fire.
The Lake Fire in San Bernardino in 2015 had to ground aerial attacks due to a drone. Same for the Maria Fire in Ventura County in 2019, and most recently the Dixie Fire in Butte County this year.
All of these fires had days where aerial fire crews were grounded because a drone was flying into restricted airspace.
“It may seem like an innocent act, but it has devastating effects,” Heggie said. “Obviously, we’ll be looking at technology, if there’s some type of future program that will allow us to ground those drones if there is a fire, and they’re starting to impede in our space, so and then the third is to really, you know, seek out those people, educate them and let them understand, you know, the consequences of flying a drone in this airspace.”
There are new technologies in play now. New technologies would block the signal between a drone and a drone pilot, effectively disabling the drone, which will fall to the ground, ending the danger. These technologies are currently in the testing stage.
Until then, Cal Fire, airports, and the FAA will continue to try and educate drone pilots so that they can continue to enjoy flying their aircraft, just in the areas that are safe for their drones and for pilots in the air.