Drones Often Lack FAA Approval and Fly Too High, Says Report

 - May 20, 2020, 10:03 AM

A May 12 close encounter between a camera drone and six F/A-18 Hornets flying in formation during a recent U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstration over Detroit appeared to confirm safety research published April 23 in the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics, and Aerospace (IJAAA) revealing that aircraft too often must share airspace with unauthorized drones.

In fact, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University researchers reported that the vast majority of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) detected around Daytona Beach International Airport during a 30-day period in 2019 lacked FAA approval, while more than one-third of those drones were flying higher than the law allows.

An FAA-approval system for commercial and recreational drone flights in controlled airspace, called LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), would reduce noncompliant UAS operations by at least 30 percent within six months, the researchers noted. “This voluntary approval process doesn’t seem to be working as expected,” said Embry-Riddle associate professor of aeronautical science Dr. John M. Robbins.

Only 19 of 271 detected DJI-type drone flights (7 percent) had received approval from the FAA to fly in the locations and at the times they flew, according to the study. The study also revealed that 34.3 percent of the detected drones exceeded the legal altitude level of 400 feet agl.

“Among the group flying too high, 32 were higher than 500 feet [agl], six were detected above 1,000 feet, and three exceeded 1,500 feet, posing a real risk to manned aviation operations in the National Airspace System—particularly if most of those drones are not even authorized to be flying in controlled airspace,” said Embry-Riddle assistant professor of aeronautical science Dr. Ryan J. Wallace.

The research “highlights notable gaps in the effectiveness of and compliance with existing FAA policies for integrating drones into the low-altitude region of the National Airspace System,” said Robbins, a coauthor on the IJAAA study.

A passive radio-frequency sensor called a DJI AeroScope detected, tracked, and recorded DJI-manufactured drones around Daytona Beach International Airport over 30 days in 2019. (Due to disruption from Hurricane Dorian, there were two sampling timeframes: from August 14 to 30 and from September 8 to 22.) The researchers then compared drone activity with locations and flying altitudes prescribed by the FAA’s UAS Facility Maps. Finally, they checked FAA LAANC approvals versus detected flights and found only 19 flights (7 percent) of 271 that aligned with authorizations.

Previous Embry-Riddle research revealed that skilled pilots approaching a runway usually can’t see drones encroaching on their airspace, especially if those drones are hovering. In another study, researchers detected 73 DJI-manufactured drones that made 192 flights near Daytona Beach International Airport during a 13-day sampling period.