Debunking the Drone Versus Plane Hysteria

The mass media are funny in the way they deal with new technology. First it’s all “Wow, that’s Cool!”, then it’s “Ooh, that’s scary”, and finally it’s “BURN THE WITCH!”. Then a year or so later it’s part of normal life and they treat it as such. We’ve seen the same pattern repeated time and time again over the years.

The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The mass media tech story cycle. Our apologies to Gartner. Curve image: Jeremykemp [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Seasoned readers may remember silly stories in the papers claiming that the Soviets could somehow use the technology in Western 8-bit home computers for nefarious purposes, since then a myriad breathless exclusives have predicted a youth meltdown which never materialised as the inevitable result of computer gaming, and more recently groundless panics have erupted over 3D printing of gun parts. There might be a British flavour to the examples in this piece because that’s where it is being written, but it’s a universal phenomenon wherever in the world technologically clueless journalists are required to fill column inches on technical stories.

The latest piece of technology to feel the heat in this way is the multirotor. Popularly referred to as the drone, you will probably be most familiar with them as model-sized aircraft usually with four rotors. We have been fed a continuous stream of stories involving tales of near-misses between commercial aircraft and drones, and there is a subtext in the air that Something Must Be Done.

The catalyst for this piece is the recent story of a collision with a British Airways plane 1700ft over West London approaching London Heathrow. The ever-hyperbolic Daily Mail sets the tabloid tone for the story as a drone strike, while the BBC’s coverage is more measured and holds a handy list of links to near-miss reports from other recent incidents. This incident is notable in particular because a Government minister announced that it is now believed to have been caused by a plastic bag, and since there is already appropriate legislation there was little need for more. A rare piece of sense on a drone story from a politician. The multirotor community is awash with plastic bag jokes but this important twist did not seem to receive the same level of media attention as the original collision.

Are multirotors unfairly being given bad press? It certainly seems that way as the common thread among all the stories is a complete and utter lack of proof. But before we rush to their defence it’s worth taking a look at the recent stories and examining their credibility. After all if there really are a set of irresponsible owners flying into commercial aircraft then they should rightly be bought to book and it would do us no favours to defend them. So let’s examine each of those incident reports from that BBC story.

At this point, not being multirotor experts we did what every sane writer should when faced with that situation but few do. We sought someone with the expert knowledge to shed some light on the matter. A friend of Hackaday is a multirotor flier and builder of many years experience, and as we continue it is his input that informs the writing here.

Analyzing Incident Reports

So, that out of the way, on to the incident reports. These are proximity reports from the UK Airbrox Board, the body whose task is to apply any of the lessons that can be gleaned from any such incidents to air safety. They are all downloadable in PDF format.

Hyde, Greater Manchester. The incident should be somewhere towards the hills in the background. Smabs Sputzer (CC BY 2.0) vial Flickr.
Hyde, Greater Manchester. The incident location should be somewhere towards the hills in the background. Smabs Sputzer (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.

Our first is Airprox Report No. 2015141. A Dornier 328 was above Hyde approaching Manchester Airport on the afternoon of 27th August 2015, at 2800 feet above sea level (about 1500 feet above local ground level) with a speed of 180 knots (207.141 mph). The drone was seen by the pilot, and was a royal blue trirotor, about 50cm in diameter.

As the report notes, this drone would certainly have been breaking the law by flying over the legal 400 feet, and the operator would almost certainly have been using an FPV camera. But let’s return to the report, at 50cm this is not a big machine. If it was a drone, its chances of carrying enough battery power to take it to 2800 feet while also both carrying and powering an FPV camera and transmitter could not be very high at all. Even at ground level these machines don’t have very long flight times, and climbing to that altitude is a power-hungry task. Remember that multirotors have propellers designed for efficiency in the thick air of ground level, and as they climb they have to work ever harder.

There is also the question of it being reported as a trirotor. This is not an unknown multirotor configuration, but such a machine is highly unusual in the UK. Unusual enough for anyone operating one to be noticed, we think.

12 o'clock to 1 o'clock on a reciprocal track. Petr Adam Dohnálek [CC0] (Wikimedia)/Andreas 06 [PD] (Wikimedia)
12 o’clock to 1 o’clock on a reciprocal track. Petr Adam Dohnálek [CC0] (Wikimedia)/Andreas 06 [PD] (Wikimedia)
Moving on, we have Airprox Report No. 2015155, a Boeing 737 departing Stansted Airport at 4000 feet and 250 knots (287.696mph) in the late afternoon of the 13th of September 2015. The aircraft reported as a drone had a fuselage 2m in length, the air crew could not say whether it was jet or propeller powered. It was reported as going from the 12 o’clock position to the 1 o’clock position in a reciprocal track.

Reading this report, we find it difficult to understand how it could responsibly be attributed to a multirotor by any of the media outlets. This describes an aircraft capable of making an extremely tight turn (refer to this page about clock positions in aviation to appreciate this if our diagram isn’t enough) over an airliner traveling at nearly 300mph at 4000 feet (Stansted is a lot closer to sea level than the terrain surrounding Manchester). We’re not fast jet specialists here at Hackaday, but wouldn’t that kind of turn be impressive performance even for a military fighter? Disregarding all the stuff from our discussion of the previous report about the difficulty of a battery powered multirotor achieving that altitude, even in their wildest dreams a multirotor owner can’t make their machine perform like that!

The UK Houses of Parliament. Mike Gimelfarb [Public domain], Wikimedia
The UK Houses of Parliament. Mike Gimelfarb [Public domain], Wikimedia
Our credulity now stretched, we move on to Airprox Reprt No. 2015157, an Embraer E170 approaching London City Airport at 2000 feet and 160 knots (184.125 mph) around midday on the 13th of September 2015. The aircrew reported “a silver drone with a ‘balloon-like’ centre and 4 small rotors on each corner”, and air traffic control confirmed the pilot had reported the incident while over the Houses of Parliament.

A balloon-like drone would be an unusual machine, but while it may be out of the ordinary it is not an unknown configuration. The Festo machine we have just linked to for example was so unusual as to have received worldwide coverage when it was announced. But like the previous reports the problem we find with this report is the altitude. The power required to get a machine to 2000 feet and stay there without running out of juice and plummeting to earth would push the abilities of multirotor battery technology to the limit. If you notice in the Festo demonstration, it is all performed indoors, without weather or significant altitude.

The real kicker here though is the location. Over the UK Houses of Parliament. If you wanted to run an experiment in how quickly you could get a free ride in a British police car, we’d suggest you try flying an unexpected multirotor in this airspace. It is some of the most tightly-monitored space in the country, full of twitchy security people fueled by The War Against Terror, and one of very few places in the UK where you’ll see police officers carrying guns. Couldn’t it just be that the pilot in fact saw an escaped novelty helium balloon, not entirely impossible over one of the most populated parts of the country?

Datchet from the air. se71 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr.
Datchet from the air. se71 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr.

Next on the list is Airprox Report No. 2015162, a Boeing 777 over Datchet climbing out of London Heathrow at 2000 feet and with a speed not reported. We’d expect the aircraft to be under acceleration at this point, so it is likely that it would be moving at a similar speed to the earlier Stansted incident.

The 777 pilot described a quadcopter, about 12 to 18 inches in diameter, and with motors the size of Coke cans on each corner. The encounter was fleeting, only a very few seconds as the 777 was in a steep climb.

There are plenty of off-the-shelf quadcopters that are about 12 to 18 inches in diameter. Container loads of them arrive from China every day, and they would have delighted a million children when unwrapped on Christmas morning. But a couple of things bother us about this report. First there is the weight and power issue we’ve mentioned when discussing the previous reports. A machine that size would not be capable in our view of reaching 2000 feet under control with an FPV camera and staying there for any appreciable time and then returning under its own power. Batteries simply are not available which are light enough to both hold that amount of power and to enable them to do this. Our second concern though comes from those motors. There are large motors for multirotors, it is true. They have higher power output and correspondingly larger electrical power demands, and you might see them on much larger machines driving larger rotors. But would it make sense to fit them to such a small airframe? We just can’t see it. Our friendly expert’s comment on this report was that it sounded as though someone who had seen a picture of a multirotor but had never handled one was trying to describe what they thought one was.

Our next incident is Airprox Report No. 2015172, an Airbus 319 over Poyle on final approach to London Heathrow at 500 feet and 140 knots (161.110 mph) on the morning of the 30th of September 2015. The pilot reported a small drone-like helicopter hovering close to the centre line. He estimated that it passed within 20 to 30 feet of his aircraft.

Unlike the previous reports, this one does not stretch the possibilities of what a multirotor or model helicopter could achieve. A toy drone or helicopter might struggle, but there are enough more capable machines available. It is not at an altitude difficult to reach with a battery-powered aircraft, nor is it beyond the possibility of controlling such an aircraft from the ground. It also finds the Airbus at its point of most vulnerability, when as an aircraft approaching the runway it lacks both the airspeed and airspace to evade another craft or to recover itself in the event of an incident.

There is however one anomaly about this incident which we feel bears further investigation. A multirotor is a small and lightweight machine, and if it were to pass within 20 feet of an airliner at low altitude traveling at 160mph it is likely that it would experience significant turbulence. In simple terms, it would be knocked out of control by the wash of the passing high speed airliner, and there is a significant likelihood that it would not have been able to remain in the air. It is certain that an investigation would have immediately begun to find any wreckage of a crashed drone, yet none was found.

Gatwick airport from the air. Phillip Capper (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Gatwick airport from the air. Phillip Capper (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Our final case is Airprox Report No. 2015212, An Airbus A321 in the final stages of approach to Gatwick Airport in the early afternoon of the 28th of November 2015. The co-pilot reported seeing a stationary drone hovering at about 100 feet over the touchdown zone. The airliner passed underneath it and the co-pilot lost sight of the drone when he was at about 20 feet above ground level.

As with the previous report, this does not push the boundaries of multirotor flight. All but the most ineffectual drones should be capable of hovering at 100 feet above ground level, indeed since it is below the UK 400 foot altitude limit they could do so perfectly legally away from somewhere like Gatwick.

There is however a troubling side to the story that we would like to see an explanation for. Unlike all the other reports, this incident took place within the confines of an active and busy international airport. Airports are crawling with people doing a multitude of jobs, and yet nobody else saw the drone. The incident happened at 13:45 and the police were on the scene at 13:52, an astoundingly quick response for UK police, yet there was no drone. If you take a look at the Gatwick touchdown zone on Google Maps, you will see it is hardly close to the perimeter of the airport, to make a successful escape in that time the drone would have had to fly rather quickly, have an excessive amount of battery power, and somehow be invisible to everyone in the area surrounding the airport. We come back to our theoretical experiment in how quickly a drone pilot could get a free ride in a British police car, we strongly suspect the reality would be that any real drone pilot doing so at Gatwick would find themselves eating porridge in a very short time indeed. If this turns out not to be the case, shouldn’t questions be being raised about the airport’s security?

We Need Better Reports

It is very important to stress that flying a multirotor or any other kind of aircraft in proximity to a commercial airliner is a crime. It’s a particularly dangerous crime, and one which can have disastrous consequences in the event of a collision. We’d go further, and suggest that if anyone is found to have been doing it they should be locked up. Throw away the key, no collecting $200 or passing Go, all the clichés. It’s a crime, and any perpetrators should face all the consequences with maximum prejudice.

We are however concerned by the tone of all the reports listed above, both as they appear in the media and as they are reported in the official incident documentation. It is reported as indisputable fact that they are all multirotors being flown illegally, yet the only evidence presented are somewhat dubious eyewitness reports, either of extremely fleeting views of the craft in question or of craft that very obviously can not be electric hobby multirotors. At no point has anyone produced a real multirotor as evidence, in fact the only incident that featured a collision was found to be with a plastic bag. We feel that reporting these incidents in this way is irresponsible, and not consistent with the high standards we would expect from an aeronautical investigative body.

Unidentified objects in the air have been a feature of aviation since the first fliers took to the skies. They have been variously explained at different times as birds, weather balloons, secret Nazi weapons, Russian spies, or even alien invaders, but the common thread when you come down to it is that nobody has a clue what they really are. It seems that the current Flavour Of The Month when you have a sighting is to blame it on a drone, but that default identification seems about as meaningful in this context as it was when people were blaming aliens.

It was reassuring to hear the UK Government response that no new legislation was required, at least those of our community in the UK whose interests lie in multirotors will be spared hasty legislation driven by tabloid newspaper outrage like the disastrously ill-conceived Dangerous Dogs Act. But as we mentioned at the start of this piece, though we’ve used UK examples to illustrate here, this is not an issue confined to one country. If we want to keep our ability to fly it’s important that we expose any bogus truths behind drone panic stories wherever we find them, help bring to book any pilots we find breaking the rules we have at the moment, and continue to fly with care and consideration for other users of the airspace.

84 thoughts on “Debunking the Drone Versus Plane Hysteria

  1. How many laser pointer reports do we see. I get it, it is harder to fly a quad copter after 10 beers than point a laser. There will be folks who try to get that great video of a passenger plane on short final from above after 10 beers.

    1. Exactly, I have always looked at the laser reports with a LOT of skepticism as it’s insanely hard to zero in on the cockpit of an aircraft only 1000 feet away with handheld laser that is sitting on the ground, let alone one doing 200mph and at least 5000 feet or more away. are some idiots doing it? yes. is it everyone and constant like the pilots and FAA wants us to believe? not a chance.

      1. They happen, and it doesn’t take long for them to blind the pilot. Scratches on the windscreen will reflect the light. Someone just needs to scan the sky, and they will accidentally hit the windscreen. The pilots eyes are used to the darkened cockpit, and the flash will ruin the night vision for a few seconds (30 or more), but during that time, the pilot is expected to continue to fly the aircraft. There is no pause.

        Usually the sheriff helicopter comes in to see who did it, and the silly fool will shine it on the hovering helicopter with a FLIR camera. Yes, they are busted, and arrested quite commonly.

        Having worked for an airline, I know, they aren’t all reported. They can take a pilot out of rotation for a day to a week or so too.

        What I am saying is, a DJI phantom with their autopilot should allow someone with less than ideal decision making faculties easy to put a quad copter in the flight path of passenger aircraft. It will only take once.

        1. most large airliners are rated for bird strikes that i will bet are of a similar energy to a multirotor(if not quite a bit more), point isn’t that it is okay for drone operators to do such things, i don’t think it would be the all or nothing accident some seem to think it will, unless the multirotor is very large and/or fast.

          an easy solution would be something akin to flarms, but lighter cheaper and designed for remote operation, flarm systems are widely used on small private planes, basically an already proven tech for the exact purpose.

      2. I don’t think it’s that hard to hit a plan with a laser. You could just shake it back and forth pointing in the general direction of the aircraft. I’m sure you could hit without much effort

      3. I have been illuminated by lasers a half dozen times over the past 15 years. Distances have ranged from hundreds of feet while on final to 16R at Seattle to thousands of feet above Portland, OR to several miles above Mollala, OR to many miles from the South East side of Mount Ashland, OR. In the Mount Ashland one, the most recent, there were numerous illuminations right after I turned landing lights on. I turned all aircraft lights off until past the mountain and had no further illuminations. Most illuminations have in common that they happen from a given location to multiple aircraft over a period of hours, days, or weeks. The point of this long post is that, yes they happen, and yes, most seem intentional. As far as drones, I have never seen one while piloting a full scale aircraft many thousands of hours. I have seen objects I had difficulty identifying-most likely balloons, weather balloons, and birds. Being an RC hobbyist, it is unlikely I will ever report a “drone” sighting. (-: I agree with the sentiment that pilots report the flavor or the day, whether Martians, UFO’s, Russians, or “drones”.

      4. Like most things the media gets worked up over the laser danger seems to be greatly exaggerated..
        The sensationalism on laser pointers has died down so it seems they moved to drones as the next big thing to cause mass hysteria over.

  2. Perhaps the authoritarians and status quo simply are paranoid of the potential uses of drones to harm them – and are working hard to get laws in place that serve dual purposes.

    Small drones are absolutely NOT being abused in the ways they could be.

      1. Almost, criminals don’t care about the laws that restrict their antisocial activities, and normal people lose another right to be left alone.

        Legislators often desire the appearance of a moral high-ground, and present controversy to distract the public & media from important dilemmas. Thus, rhetoric is mass marketed by every political party, pundit, and corporation. People are too distracted to bother understanding politics, as the volume of nonsense makes it a pointless task similar to Sisyphus’s Rock.

        Now, even HaD publishers can rant about unfounded theories, and inspire others to make irrational arguments about problems they only barely understand. The article should have cited easily verifiable facts such as:

        1. Humans don’t have 3D depth perception beyond around 5m. Thus, the concept of how near/big an object appears is subject to the Illusion-of-Scale phenomena.

        2. The Illusion-of-Scale phenomena is especially pronounced when unfamiliar objects with inconsistent physical properties start to appear with no localized visual cues. It is a very common optical illusion for primates with a visual cortex.

        3. With no 3D depth perception or concept of how near an object actually is located, a pilot may see a larger drone as a near miss. Higher visibility objects could also be rather alarming, given they are normally easier to spot against a dark background instead of the sky. Therefore, the concept of losing visual contact a few hundred feet away on the ground would bias them to panic if it was visible at any distance.

        4. Your fun versus my safety… I built my own quad, fly it, and enjoy the hobby. However, a quad it now a consumer product that can be purchased by anyone. “Anyone” is usually not a hobbyist that intends on bothering to even read the instruction manual, and people as a group are prone to do dumb things eventually (ask any politician).

        When I get on a plane, I recall that while many pilots are certainly using non-factual rhetoric… it fulfils the voter’s illusion of control via proxy… just like the TSA.
        …and it was certainly cheaper than therapy for over 200 million citizens.

        Maybe there is something else going on, and pilots are starting to come to the same realization elevator operators had late in their careers. Indeed, drones may eventually fully automate many short range flights of cargo.
        ;-)

  3. Thank you for properly referring to them as multirotors throughout most of your article and only using drone a few times. I am an avid R/C modeler and it irks me how people are using the term as a blanket term referring to any remote controlled aircraft as a drone.

      1. Well even nuclear weapons themselves can save or end the world as well depending on the situation they’re used in.
        Such as a hydrogen bomb could be used to steer a comet or asteroid off course.

    1. I believe “drone” is not referring to the flying device, but rather the people who just can’t shut up about their hobby. All the time, everywhere droning on about those stupid machines…

  4. Pilots on a whole are very hostile to “drones” or multirotors and do not want to share the sky with them in the least, if you spend any time around professional and amateur piloting forums as any proof anyway. And they tend to be drama queens for whatever reason, even though you would think being in such a profession would require a bit of reserved restraint. I’ve spent hours listening to full on conversations of airline and commercial cargo pilots via air-band scanners and not only do they fully ignore the rules of a sterile cockpit with their non-stop chatter, they engage in all sorts of questionable banter for guys that, I dunno? should be focused on the tasks at hand? Not to mention the fact everything they are saying is being recorded, at least on board AND is being broadcast for hundreds of miles in every direction. ACARS can be pretty comical at times as well, some of the stuff you’d see there too. For a bunch of guys that love to scream “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PASSENGERS!?!!” they sure don’t seem to take the communications side of flying that seriously.

    1. I think what you’re describing is various posers and wannabes talking shit on web forums where nobody can check your identity.

      There’s plenty of “vietnam veterans” out there telling war stories just the same.

    2. I’ve noticed this as well. Pilots are commenting these news stories on Facebook and it makes them seem mentally unstable, when they’re wanting to kill the drone operators without a shread of evidence that it was even a drone that hit or didn’t hit a plane…I’d actually want to report THEM as not capable of flying a passenger plane.

    3. I live in an area used for military flight operations training. With the right scanners you can hear the Osprey and chopper pilots. About 40% of chatter is about where they’re going to eat later, fart jokes, and double entendres about drug use.

    4. I’m imagining a bunch of skyway truck drivers, chatting to each other about where is the nearest brothel to the airport, decent restaurant, or crazy SOB with a laser pointer fetish. Kinda makes me want to tune in. :-)

      Seriously though, once you’ve put a few hundred/thousand hours into any job, it’s all automatic. These guys are jabbering just to meet people and stay awake, just like truckers do.

  5. As someone who in their long-gone teenage years used to be very into the paranormal, it does strike me that these improbable “drone” sightings have more in common with the behaviours of classic unexplained UFO sightings than the manoeuvrability of any commercially available drones.

    I’m not going to go into any guesses of what they might have seen, but on a psycho-social front it does seem possible that “drone” is becoming a more acceptable way for pilots to say “I have no idea what that thing was”.

    1. A lot of the ‘UFO’ sightings by pilots sound to me like an effects that’s been happening to me recently. I’ve been flying quite often for work (averaging 4-6 flight segments per week). During a decent or occasions were the cabin pressure changes, bright spots appear in my vision and will hang there for a little while and then shoot off to the sides. I asked an optometrist about it, apparently its just the optic nerve misfiring due to blood pressure changes and when shifting the eye, the blood flows properly and disappears after a millisecond or two (just enough so that the bright spot appears to suddenly move in a single direction and disappears before the eye moves back). There is also a psychological component in that the brain attempts to find a reason the bright object only appeared in one eye so causes a deja-vu like effect.

    2. A lot of UFO’s are actually federal and state aircraft. They quietly patrol the skies looking for potheads growing crap.
      I bet they use quads to look for quads; and then mistake themselves as ‘hackers flying drones peeking into bedrooms’!

      1. Word. My favorite aircraft is the stealth-rotor Commanche variant. They were in use long before that one got stuck on a wall in Pakiland. Absolutely beautiful machine.

  6. It is entirely possible that some of those drones were just swept up by the winds. Considering that most drones are very light, I don’t see how even a several hundred km/h collision with them could do any serious harm to planes weighing several hundred tons, and built to withstand bird strikes. Drones are not a solid block of steel.

    1. A lot of planes don’t escape bird-strikes unharmed. Birds can cause significant damage to engines, especially on older craft. Modern aircraft (737-900, -ng’s, 787s, 747-8’s) are able to fly just fine with only a single engine (or two in case of the 747) without the passengers being any the wiser, the aircraft just can’t climb very fast, go at a slower speed, and will tend to pull to one-side, but nothing a skilled pilot couldn’t handle.

      This was one of the reasons the US government exclusively used 4-engine craft for Air Force One / the Doomsday Planes (The E-4’s). They didn’t want the president to be stuck on the ground or their nuclear response crippled because a hawk decided it was a good time to hang out near the airport.

      1. we should outlaw birds, certainly the ones that fly with first person vision. I think the simplest explanation would be that all these incidents are implausibly related by one helium balloon carrying a payload of thousands of plastic bags….

    1. This is very important. If you’ve ever been flying and nearly hit a bird you didn’t see early, you know you only get about a blink to react/duck before it goes past you… even at slow speeds like 60 or 70 knots. And things like speed, range, and size are all related, but unlike birds there is almost no objective reference when making a quick observation.

      tl;dr most of these reports are based on fast sightings of probably a few seconds or less.

    2. This. The analysis here dismisses quite a few of these reports on the basis that a drone of that size couldn’t fly that high, on the assumption that the pilots’ reports of size are accurate. Try estimating the size of a hovering multirotor at a couple of hundred feet from the ground; you’ll be lucky to be on the right order of magnitude. Trying the same thing while trying to land an aeroplane travelling at >100mph relative to the multirotor is not likely to produce accurate results. You can’t say, on that basis, that what the pilot saw was not a multirotor.

      Also, the last report is questioned because it was over a busy airport and surely someone else would have seen it. It’s true that the terminal area of an airport is always very busy, but the main runway at Gatwick is over two miles long. A drone hovering near the far corner of the airfield is not likely to be noticed, and seven minutes is plenty of time for a drone to cover a couple of miles away from the airport.

  7. Maybe computer gaming didn’t “melt down” our youth, but the combination of smartphones and social media has.Tried getting the attention of a teenager lately?

  8. “The co-pilot reported seeing a stationary drone hovering at about 100 feet over the touchdown zone. The airliner passed underneath it and the co-pilot lost sight of the drone when he was at about 20 feet above ground level.”

    I would expect the drone would be tossed by the turbulence of the plane passing that close and readily foundcrashed on the airport property.

    I’m not as comfortable saying a drone couldn’t make it to 2000 feet. Air density doesn’t change that much. My own quad-copter can get to some hundreds of fight in a matter of seconds. Overall flight time on it is 10 minutes or so. Whether you could get a drone down safely from 2000 feet without losing power is another question. But then most of the way down you only need enough power to keep the quad stable and with an auto stabilizing controller you could let it free fall.

    1. “I’m not as comfortable saying a drone couldn’t make it to 2000 feet. Air density doesn’t change that much. ”
      3 PSI loss from sea level to 2000 feet. that is significant for four tiny rotors to create lift from. that would be the difference of 60% throttle to maintain altitude to 100% throttle to maintain altitude. you would have to design the Quad copter to have bigger rotors and higher power motors to operate at any significant altitude.

        1. It’s not so much the operating altitude as it is the time and power use it takes to get up there. For example, lifting off in Denver, CO vs lifting off at a much lower altitude and climbing up to the height of Denver.

          1. I absolutely understand that.. but I’ve lifted off and climbed 1500ft up the side of a mountain in a miniquad with 5″ props at 2000m (6600ft) start altitude. Altitude gain is not the problem in these scenarios. Just about any reasonably capable quad can reach 1500ft gain in altitude easily.

      1. Land, no. Helicopters store energy as angular momentum in the auto-rotating rotor mass and then use it at the last possible moment to flare before landing. Multirotors’ tiny blades don’t have enough mass to store useful energy, and even if they did a constant pitch rotor cannot perform the pitch change necessary to use it. It may be possible to control the attitude of the vehicle when it crashes though. If the software was programmed to remove power to all rotors, then selectively brake rotors that were windmilling in the airstream you might be able to maintain attitude control right down to impact…

  9. As the above commenter, I’m not sold on your misgivings about multirotors being able to reach 2000ft. I regularly fly in the Andes at around 2000 meters above sea level. My flight time is reduced by about 20%, but even then I can easily fly a 2.2km round trip (most level) with my AP Gimbal quad. My race quads, with a flight time of only 5 minutes can do the same, even straight up, and do so a couple times.

  10. > In simple terms, it would be knocked out of control by the wash of the passing high speed airliner

    Yes, it would. However, these quadcopters are *really* good at correcting for such things, and so I’d expect it to immediately right itself and so it would only stay out of control for a second or two — not enough time to fall to the ground and crash.

    Only if the turbulence was violent enough to physically break something (a prop, the frame, etc.) or it actually collided with the plane would I expect this to cause a crash.

    1. Your expectations may be incorrect. The wake turbulence or “downwash” if you will, from an A320 can easily cause following real aircraft to physically smash into the ground. This is why there are mandatory in-trail separation requirements between landing aircraft for air traffic control. Depending on exactly where it was, the multi would not experience correctable turbulence but rather a sudden 100 mph downdraft, probably resulting in a flight-ending crash. Search on “wake turbulence”, it will open your eyes.

  11. Well most planes have TCAS so why not just put a TCAS sensor in drones, it detects TCAS and cuts the engines, problem solved (drone grounded or in the ground.)

    1. TCAS relies on the radar transponder. This is about half the size of a brick, uses several 10s of Watts and weighs more then a kg. Peak radio output power @ around 1GHz is up to 1kW. Nothing to do in a small chip.

  12. Time to start firing drones into jet engines like we do chickens and turkeys for “bird strike” simulations. I’d wager a bet a jet engine could ingest a surprisingly large drone, especially when you consider most of the jet engines are high bypass turbofan engines. (most of the debris would go around the engine after the initial set of turbines)

  13. Oh my god what a terribly “researched” article!
    I appreciate that the author took the time to carefully review the reports.
    But then they follow up with a series of unsupported assumptions, no fact checking whatsoever (and many of them are DEAD SIMPLE to google for), and rely on a so called “expert friend” to back them up on every count.
    HAD really.. Would have been acceptable back in the day, when you were mostly volunteer writers.
    I sincerely hope you didn’t PAY for this article.

    ASSUMPTION: That in every case, the person had to be flying FPV, and that somehow would have limited their flying altitude.
    ASSUMPTION: All these shenanigans should have caused them to loose control of the vehicle, and thus it CANT possibly be a drone!
    ASSUMPTION: Multirotors cant fly to altitudes of 2000 feet or higher because batteries and props?!?!
    ASSUMPTION: Multirotors can not make U turns?!

    MANY operators dont even bother with FPV. And certainly not for such high altitude ‘stunts’ (as in, doing something stupid)

    What makes some multirotors a drone is the ability to operate without direct control, such as waypoint or programmed flight. Directly over head, even at 2K feet, its possible to have some control, but it is just as likely that vehicle is on a preplanned mission path and has no direct human control at the moment of visual sighting.

    High pitch, large propellers are quite common and easily obtained. Primarily chosen for higher thrust, at a tradeoff of a bit more current consumption. The “drone propellers cant get that high because of air density” claim is.. absolutely absurd.

    Big motors, Why would they?: Equally absurd. High performance operators with money to spend are really good at optimizing. There are flight mission parameters, payload conditions and goals in which combinations of airframe, battery, and propellers might dictate that a larger motor is more optimal than a small one. This is “Tuning anything sport 101”

    Dont have enough power: Yeah no. Let me remind you of the one directly above. Now understand two very important facts:
    1: A good builder will spec their vehicle such that their typical operations require less than %50 power. That gives them a LOT of headroom. A vehicle that can hover at 50 meters at %40 throttle can GET REAL HIGH.
    2: Throttle does != altitude. Throttle of a multirotor mostly equals a CHANGE in altitude. Sure, if you want to hover at 100 meters, you’ll need to hold the throttle higher than at 50. But changing altitude from 50 to 100 takes more than just sitting there.

    Battery technology cant go that high: What the actual F? Achievable altitude is determined by available thrust (minus weight/payload) for a given flight time. Flight time is generally described on a non-linear curve. On a craft with a large margin of thrust, doubling the battery capacity will add approximately %70 give or take (depends on a LOT of factors) to flight time. Sure, more weight is added, and thus more thrust is needed to maintain an altitude, but so long as thrust is on tap, you have extended flight time. tripling the battery capacity will only add another %30-50 on top of the 70 already added. It rolls off. Point is, it is not at all difficult to obtain 15 minute flight times, even on “toys” only designed to fly 5 – 7 minutes.

    Here is an example of a somewhat typical medium hobby level vehicle obtaining 1000 meters (thats 3300 feet!) in 2 minutes and 30 seconds:

    1. ahh didnt get to the “drones cant do U turns”
      Racing quads easily hit 80 to 100 kph. Generally known for turning on a dime, even at those speeds. Though the turn looks a bit more like a skater in a half pipe.

      I am not saying ALL of these attributes are obtainable in JUST ONE airframe. But EVERY event described is easily possible by any number of commercially available and home built multirotor aircraft.

      1. Actually, by looking at the diagram provided, I dont even think this is a “U turning drone”
        It is also possible that the object is question was stationary, thus appearing to close with the airplane, since it is moving towards it. The object then began moving to the right and briefly accelerating out in front of the plane.

        As another comment mentioned: Optical illusions abound in the skies.

        And that “Big motors” comment: Could have also just been some body covering making them appear large.

    2. dude have you even flown a quad copter there symmetrical, i cant even tell which way mine is facing at 100ft let alone at 2000ft, and yes quad copters can get to around 2000ft but even there you only have at most a minute or to of battery left over and your theory about just adding another a better battery dosent stand up as most quad copters are already using there optimal battery. it is clear that you know nothing about rc aircraft or rpas

    3. Hi MRE,
      Your answer to most of the points above are true except for “throttle does equal altitude”
      when in fact “throttle = speed of rise or lower” once your quad is raising from the ground at a set throttle position it will continue to rise at the same speed until you change the throttle position or the battery runs out unless your flight controller is set to stop it. I build and fly quad copters and have several ready made models and several home built models and every one of them operates the same none of them stop gaining height if I hold the throttle in the same position it took to get it to raise off the ground.

      One other thing I would like to raise what came over you to get you to fly your quad in the manner of this video? flying in this manner is what gets quad pilots a bad name flying that high and not leaving yourself enough battery power to get the model back to the point of take off is not good especially when flying over housing do you not have anywhere to fly that is open land without housing or roads?
      you added that it took several days for you to retrieve your model did you not have the GPS position from the model on your screen?

      except for that it was a great video.

      Regards Poppy Ann.

  14. If you can find it. (This british plastic bag makes that hard.) In the US there was a reported drone strike, with damage and everything. Nice big dent in black on the wing. Small GA aircraft. Wish I could remember the type. A few reports said the pilot had called it a UAV, others just said object, and some blamed FAA assumptions.

    They did testing, guess what? It was a bird strike.

    (Seriously wish I’d bookmarked it. It was hard to find the followup story as opposed to the dozens and dozens of ‘OMG, Actual Drone strike!’-type articles.) At that time, there were supposedly two reported as drone strikes, never did find out about the other one, or see a picture of it. (Could have been crap reporting with details wrong, and have been referring to the same one.)

    Finally, found an article with the picture. http://makezine.com/2015/09/03/was-it-a-drone-mystery-plane-collision-causes-concern-skepticism/

    AHA!
    http://www.avweb.com/avwebflash/news/Reported-Drone-Collision-Was-a-Birdstrike-224805-1.html

  15. I still can’t believe that after a day and 60 comments nobody has pointed out that a drone only slightly larger than a DJI phantom can easily loft a hand grenade and fly it through an open window. This is what regulators are really worried about even though they are never saying it outright.

    1. A) It’s not main point of the article
      B) It’s a lot easier to throw a grenade through an open window.
      C) Drone based weaponry is scary.. but only on a very limited basis. If you’re going to get all up in arms against the possibility that a drone with a grenade might kill a bunch of people, you’d better be out there campaigning against guns first, since they statistically kill many more people than drones with grenades.

      1. i totally agree the FAA is over regulating rc aircraft that to my knowledge have caused a very small amount of incidents but yet the American government inst changing gun laws. how many people have been killed by a rc aircraft compared to a gun.

  16. Just wanted to leave a comment about the police getting to Gatwick pretty sharpish. The main police station for Gatwick is in Crawley. A normal journey by car in takes 10 minutes from town center. If you the police and speeding in you can do it in maybe 3-4 minutes.

    Also Gatwick has police on site as well as normal security and armed police security. So the response time is actually pretty accurate. ;)

  17. Has anyone bothered to fly a small quadcopter into an operating turbo-fan engine to see what happens? My guess would be absolutely nothing except for the obvious total annihilation of the “drone”

    1. The FAA really should have done that before they pulled that 250 gram number out of their ass.
      They probably would have came up with much larger mass limit in the process.

  18. “It is certain that an investigation would have immediately begun to find any wreckage of a crashed drone, yet none was found.”

    certain how and why?
    Oh wait it’s not, it’s what you kind of imagine, that’s not “certain” at all with any normal persons definition of that word. same as above you imagine limitations of drones that people say their device can easily beat, you image a police response time without thinking about any logistics. you imagine a lot and present it as a fact…

    I’m not sure I fully understand this article at all. what you’ve said to all reports is the equivalent of sticking fingers in ears saying “nah nah nah I can’t hear you”

    Hardest to believe is the political response is only mentioned as a footnote!
    literally the day after the latest “drone incident” they had a minister on a breakfast politics show. Who essentially said the same thing this site always says:

    “we have legislation, it’s good legislation, we don’t need more legislation, no amount of legislation will stop stupid people doing stupid things.”

    “It is reported as indisputable fact that they are all multirotors being flown illegally”
    no, it’s not, not by the papers, national radio, nor by politicians.

    the article might not be a hack, but the writer is.

  19. Pretty balanced reporting; would that we’d get similar type articles in the US (wait, what am I thinking). Only aspect I’d like to see expanded upon is the near complete lack of any training of pilots to identify what it is they are looking at. As the article notes, blame it on drones is the new “blame it on UFOs” and I don’t think any Air Force wants to start a Project Blue Book effort for drones. Bad reporting, no common format for reporting, no pilot training but blaming a lack of knowledge on drone operators = inaccuracies (just see the FAA hype about their hundreds of “near misses” which include birds, legally flown drones, military drones, and yes, UFOs).

  20. Hi I am Jared Reabow
    One thing lots of people keep saying is “drones will easily fly 2000ft for minutes”
    My answer is, yes but only if its a high end purchase or custom build.
    The Phantom vision for example simply does not have the transmission range, it goes about 1000ft before signal loss.
    (this can be better or worse depending on signal conditions in the area)
    And if its a multi-rotor with a GoPro wifi connection, good luck getting more than 600ft.
    one thing you guys need to realize is most people doing these stupid things are your “buy and fly” consumers who just buy that cheapo drone with a GoPro.
    They just don’t have the range.

    So if these report are true then most likely the perps have built the multi-rotor them-self with the distinct purpose of breaking the law.

  21. When I read:
    > at 2800 feet above sea level
    And then:
    > and as they climb they have to work ever harder.
    I stop reading. First of all, at 2800 feet, the air is less than 10% thinner than at sea level. So the difference is not all that big. The second thing is that the props will have to move a bit quicker, but at the same power level. As lift is proportional to speed squared, the props will have to move about 5% faster than at sea level. But at 5% less torque to get the same power. (The air is thinner, remember? So the props will move easier through it!).

    I remember reading a similar bullshit argument a few years back. Is this the same author?

    1. Wow did you bother to read the article, they stated the likelihood of a drone that size reaching and maintaining that altitude whilst carrying video transmission equipment is low due to battery consumption.
      They were pointing out the atmosphere would be less conducive to flight the higher it goes (which is also correct).
      Not to mention at that size and color, it would have been incredibly difficult to spot when flying 200mph.

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