Earlier this month, a small commercial airplane collided with an unmanned aircraft system (“UAS” or drone) during its final descent into Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, Canada.  After numerous near-misses, this was the first confirmed collision between a drone and a commercial aircraft in North America.  The incident has renewed UAS safety and enforcement concerns, but also highlights opportunities and tools necessary to further improve the system. 

The drone collided with the left wing of a Beech King Air A-100 flown by charter operator Skyjet M.G.  The collision occurred about three miles from the airport and at an altitude of 1,500 feet, while the airplane was on final approach.  The aircraft sustained damage, but the six passengers and two crew members were able to land safely.

Under Canadian regulations, this drone was flying far beyond its legal limits.  In Canada, drones are permitted to fly at a maximum altitude of 300 feet and must remain at least 3.4 miles away from an airport.  As Marc Garneau, Canada’s Transport Minister, said in a news conference: “That drone should not have been there.”   The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the Quebec City police are investigating the incident, but the drone operator has not yet been located.  In both Canada and the United States, the difficulty of enforcing UAS rules is a growing concern.  While federal, state, and local authorities are trying to better enforce regulations and prevent unsafe and unauthorized UAS operations, enforcement harmonization has not yet been achieved.

While this is the first time authorities confirmed a drone collision with a commercial aircraft in North America, reports of drone sightings and near-misses with manned aircraft have significantly increased over the past two years.  According to the FAA, reports of UAS flying improperly or too close to an aircraft went up to an average of more than 100 a month, a significant increase from 2016.  Recently, a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter collided with a drone near Staten Island, New York.  The helicopter managed to land safely, but sustained significant damage.

The FAA and private industry stakeholders are working to provide tools to safely integrate largescale UAS operations into the airspace and prevent collisions.  Some of these tools include developing a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) platform, improving “sense and avoid” technologies, including geofencing software with new UAS, releasing the “Know Before You Fly” application, coordinating with state and local authorities, and levying civil penalties for unauthorized drone operations.  These tools support the FAA and local authorities in addressing safety and enforcement issues associated with drone activities in the United States.

Effective prevention of collisions is a necessary step for the broader integration of drones into U.S. and Canadian airspace.  All airspace users need certainty that manned and unmanned aircraft can safely and efficiently share the air to achieve the best results for everyone.