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Close encounters

Navigating in an unmanned sky

In the vast expanse of the azure sky, it’s not just birds, clouds, and other airplanes you could encounter.
Close encounters

With the ubiquitous rise of drone technology, pilots increasingly cross paths with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). How can we safely navigate these encounters? The solution lies in understanding the UAVs’ capabilities and regulations governing them, being prepared before every flight, and consciously responding rather than instinctively reacting.

The emergence of drones has broken new ground in the aviation sector, yielding many advantages in areas ranging from agriculture to emergency response. However, this progress has come with challenges. These unmanned marvels have introduced certain risks to general aviation, with pilots recounting near misses and, at times, collisions. Consequently, the need to ensure the safe coexistence of drones and conventional aircraft in shared airspace has gained escalating urgency.

Foremost, knowledge is power. Pilots should familiarize themselves with the FAA drone rules, which in part state that drones should not operate near any aircraft, should not exceed 400 feet agl without prior permission, and must always yield the right of way to crewed airplanes.

Preflight preparation is vital in anticipating a potential encounter between your airplane and a drone. It begins with a comprehensive review of notices to air missions (notams). Some drone activities necessitate the filing of a notam. The information it provides gives you a better picture of what to expect.

Secondly, referencing the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) can provide useful insights. This database documents recent drone encounters, with details on altitude and location, thereby helping to identify recurring patterns along your planned route.

Another valuable resource is the B4UFLY app. Opening the app presents a map displaying flight plans filed by drone pilots. However, the app’s usage isn’t widespread, so it might not account for all drone activity in your flight path. Use it as a tool, not a definitive guide.

The FAA’s Remote ID requirements for registered drones is in effect on September 16, 2023. From then on, expect all drones (excluding those less than 0.55 pounds) to transmit essential details such as registration, altitude, location, and speed via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. As more drone pilots become compliant, more data will be available, and we anticipate the rise of apps capable of displaying such information, offering another layer of preparation and awareness.

If you encounter a drone in flight, your first reaction might be alarm. However, it’s imperative that you maintain focus. Your primary goal is the safety of your aircraft and its occupants. If a collision seems possible, your experience and training in collision avoidance should come into play. Use the principles of “see and avoid.” However, remember that drones can be tough to spot, given their small size. Be prepared to execute evasive maneuvers, prioritizing altitude loss.

Record the drone’s approximate altitude, direction, color, size, shape, and identifying markings. Your observations will be essential for an FAA investigation.

Notify ATC about the drone sighting, providing your collected details. Even if you’re flying VFR and aren’t in contact with ATC, tune into the nearest flight service station to report the drone in a pirep. The timely relay of this information could help prevent potential collisions.

Post-flight, report your drone encounter to the FAA via your local flight standards district office (FSDO) and the ASRS website. This is not just a procedural necessity but a responsibility to your fellow pilots, as your report will contribute to understanding in-flight drone activity patterns and formulating preventative measures.

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Terrie Mead

Terrie Mead

Aviation Technical Writer
Terrie Mead is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She currently holds a commercial pilot certificate, a CFI with a sport pilot endorsement, a CFII, and she is multiengine rated.

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