Many Drone Pilots Fly Higher than Legally Allowed

(Source: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) Depiction of detected sUAS origination locations within KDAB UASFM grid. Numerals indicate max detected altitude to nearest hundred feet AGL. White markers are less than 400 ft; cyan markers are 400-499 ft AGL; yellow markers are 500-999 ft AGL; red markers are 1,000+ ft AGL.

According to a recent study of DJI drones by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics, and Aerospace many drone pilots fly higher than they are legally allowed.  The study reported that the vast majority of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) detected around Daytona Beach International Airport during a 30-day period in 2019 lacked FAA approval, while more than one-third of those drones were flying higher than the law allows.

When comparing UAS detection data against corresponding UASFM grid locations, the research showed only 177 of (65.3%) of detected 271 UAS platforms fell within prescribed altitude limits for their respective UASFM grid location. Among the group flying too high, 32 were higher than 500 feet Above Ground Level (AGL), six were detected above 1,000 feet, and three exceeded 1,500 feet, posing a real risk to manned aviation operations in the National Airspace System—particularly if most of those drones are not even authorized to be flying in controlled airspace,” said Embry-Riddle assistant professor of aeronautical science Dr. Ryan J. Wallace.

During the sample period, 272 UAS operations were detected. One of the UAS operations fell outside the UASFM grid, leaving 271 useful datasets (see photo below). There were  94 LAANC approvals were granted or active within the KDAB UASFM grid, including: 41 Part 107 approvals (43.6%), 24 recreational approvals (25.5%), and 29 manually-processed approvals (30.9%).

(Source: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) sUAS Detections in proximity to Daytona Beach International Airport (KDAB), August 14-September 22, 2019, displayed with telemetry.

The data was collected from only those drones manufactured by DJI for a 30 day period by AeroScope, a device that passively detects, identifies, and tracks UAS platforms using communications signals. The device gathers detailed information including UAS model, status, flight path, home (launch) point, altitude, drone ID, flight ID, latitude / longitude, home and pilot location and other related information in real-time. Research group Drone Industry Insights (2019) estimates that DJI market share exceeds 76.8%.

The study highlighted “notable gaps in effectiveness and compliance with existing FAA policies for integrating small unmanned aircraft systems into the low-altitude region of the National Airspace System” and recommends the adoption of additional proactive measures to curtail non-compliant operations, including formal and informal UAS operator education such as FAAST Courses,  and Waiver Videos, liberal use of deterrent measures such as no drone zone signage or social media outreach, and continual promotion of UAS operator compliance tools like B4UFLY, FAA DroneZone, to name a few. The research team also believes more stringent UAS operator enforcement measures are also warranted.

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