Back in March, U.S. Airways Flight 4650, flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to Tallahassee, Florida, nearly experienced an historic disaster. The aircraft, which accommodates 50 passengers, nearly crashed into a camouflaged drone. The remotely piloted drone was 2,300 feet in the air — much higher than it should have been.
The incident was kept under wraps until last week, when Jim Williams, head of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems of the FAA, spoke at the sUSB Expo, otherwise known as the Silicon Valley Drone Show. He urged the FAA to respond to the quickly increasing number of questions and incidents regarding drones, and then mentioned the near-miss between the drone and the airliner, which occurred roughly five miles from the Tallahassee airport.
The U.S. Airways pilot said that the unmanned drone wasn’t one that looked like a helicopter (the style often used by commercial drones for delivery and videotaping.) The pilot said the vehicle looked more like an F-4 Phantom, a small two-seat, twin-engine fighter jet often used by the U.S. Navy.
Such unmanned vehicles can flyer higher than commercial drones — still, that doesn’t explain what it was doing 2,300 feet in the air. At this point, no one knows (or no one claims to know) the exact drone in question, or who was operating it. U.S. Airways is aware of the incident and is investigating it.
In his talk, Williams reminded the audience about another U.S. Airways flight — the one that crash-landed into the Hudson River and vaulted pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) to hero status. It’s thought that the crash was caused by the plane striking a bird during take-off, which resulted in the bird getting sucked into the engine (or perhaps both engines — some sources say Sully referred to a “double bird strike”), which caused the engines to lose power. If such a small animal could cause a calamity like that, what would happen if a drone collided with a plane?
This is just another incident indicating the need for regulations of unmanned aircraft, as well as right-of-way rules and “detect-and-avoid” standards. The FAA has been crafting such regulations for a while, but doesn’t have anything solid in place yet, particularly when it comes to commercial drones, which are right now outlawed, but are the source of a current appellate case in which a drone pilot was fined $10,000 by the FAA for operating a drone equipped with a video camera over the University of Virginia Medical Center.
This latest incident raises doubts about whether services such as Amazon’s drone delivery will ever actually get off the ground. I guess if the situation gets out of hand, we can always call in the U.S. Navy to kill drones with lasers — perhaps the one weapon even more powerful than lawyers.