New technique could help drone and aircraft avoid collisions

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Drones are an increasingly common sight in our skies. However, as their numbers grow, so does the risk of collisions with manned aircraft.

Researchers have now developed a method to objectively analyze close encounters between drones and planes, providing a much-needed advance beyond relying solely on pilot sightings.

Published in the SAE International Journal of Aerospace, the study analyzed over 1.8 million manned aircraft operations and nearly 460,000 flights by small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) around Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Researchers from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Unmanned Robotic Systems Analysis (URSA) identified 24 near-midair collisions (NMACs) where drones came within 500 feet of piloted aircraft between 2018 and 2021.

Based on their observations, the researchers recommended extending the runway exclusion zone for drones at the ends of high-risk runways from about 1 mile to 3.5 miles.

This modification would provide better protection for piloted aircraft operating at less than 500 feet during approach or departure.

Previously, information about narrow escapes between sUAS and airplanes was mostly based on subjective reports from pilots.

The researchers have now developed an objective way to gather detailed information about these near-miss events.

They combined telemetry data from drones and aircraft with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) messages transmitted by planes and tracked by the OpenSky Network. This data was then processed using URSA’s proprietary analytics software.

During the study period, the researchers detected 24 close-call events. The average lateral distance between the drone and the airplane was only about 215 feet.

Most of these near-miss events occurred close to airports or heliports.

The findings will provide objective data to improve understanding of drone operations and prevent possible conflicts. The FAA is expected to implement a new requirement for all drone operators to have a remote identification signal.

This should further enhance objective information about near-miss encounters between drones and airplanes.

With an estimated 1.46 million drones operating in the National Airspace System and that number projected to reach 2.4 million by 2025, this research is critical to maintaining safety in our skies.

The evidence-based approach used in this study provides an invaluable tool to manage and mitigate the risks associated with the proliferation of drones.

The study was published in SAE International Journal of Aerospace.

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