Welcome Your IET account
plane landing at airport

Pilots in US studies consistently struggle to spot drones when landing

Image credit: Dreamstime

Even skilled pilots struggle to spot drones when approaching a runway and virtually never spot a stationary one, new research shows.

Researchers from Oklahoma State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studied what happens as a pilot prepares to land and switches from instrument-guided flight to visual flight.

Participants selected from a collegiate flight-training programme were observed while approaching a runway in a Cessna 172S while a DJI Phantom IV quadcopter-type drone flew a scripted series of manoeuvres.

During the experiment the subjects failed to see a common type of quadcopter during 28 of 40 close encounters. While the drone was motionless, the pilots saw just three out of 22 cases.

The aviation industry has expressed repeated concern over the wide availability of drones and attempts by some to fly them dangerously near airports. In June the UK Civil Aviation Authority proposed introducing a traffic management system for all airborne vehicles designed to reduce incidents involving drones.

Dr Ryan J Wallace, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said: “Dangerous close encounters between aircraft and drones are becoming an increasingly common problem.

“Statistics on pilot sightings of drones continue to increase year over year, and what is being reported by pilots is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

“The vast majority of the time, unmanned aircraft are not being seen by pilots.”

Currently in the United States there are more than 1.4 million registered drones, likely many more unregistered, and they continue to proliferate, Wallace said.

The maximum distance at which a drone was spotted was 2,324 feet, giving pilots only around 21 seconds to avoid a potential collision.

Dr Matt Vance, assistant professor of aviation and space at Oklahoma State University, said: “That might be enough time if the drone was hovering in one spot, but not nearly enough if it’s in flight, headed for the aircraft.

“The situation is far more dangerous when both aircraft are moving. Our eyes are attuned to movement. When a drone is not moving, it becomes part of the background.”

Department store John Lewis stopped selling the flying devices in the UK in May because of the chaos they are causing at airports.

Drone sightings at Gatwick in December caused around 1,000 flights to be cancelled or diverted over 36 hours, affecting more than 140,000 passengers in the run-up to Christmas.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles

Info Message

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.


Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them