No place is more dangerous for a drone to fly than near airports. Not only are the skies crowded, but aircraft may take off or land at low altitudes within the 400-foot ceiling drones are supposed to fly under.
The FAA has very strict rules governing flight around airports. But a new study indicates that a lot of drone pilots are not following the rules and sometimes egregiously flaunting them.
The data come from a study by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of drone traffic around the Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida. Researchers were able to identify the majority of drone flights in the area by intercepting their radio signals. They then compared this to an FAA database of drones that had received permission to operate around the airport.
Over a 30-day period in August and September 2019, researchers identified 271 flights using a device called AeroScope, which tracks the unencrypted signals used by DJI drones. Since DJI makes up roughly 80% of the drones in the US, it’s a pretty good gauge of how many drones were flying at the airport, although there could have been even more, since the device doesn’t track other vendors.
Researchers tried to correlate these flights with data from an FAA system called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC. Introduced in 2018, it allows drone pilots to request permission to fly in airport airspace through a simple smartphone app. Requests get an approval or denial in near real-time. But lots of people didn’t bother to use the system. During the study period, the FAA granted just 94 LAANC approvals, versus the 271 flights detected.
Flying too high
The study collected a lot of data on how drones were flying, including their altitude. Of the 271 flights, 93 were above the altitude limit set for the area they were in. Max altitude gets lower the closer you get to the runway, eventually hitting zero. But many of these drones would have been flying illegally, regardless of the location. Forty-one were operating above 500 feet, which isn’t allowed anywhere in the US. Thirty-two of those were between 500 and 1,000 feet. Six were between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, and three flights were above 1,500 feet.
Daytona International is just one among hundreds of significant airports in the US. But if it’s any indication of how drone pilots are flying around the country, there is a lot of potential danger at US airports.