In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of birds and wound up in the Hudson River. Fortunately, everyone survived and the event went on the be called the "Miracle on the Hudson." But in March of this year, a US Airways flight was almost hit by something far more dangerous than geese. How the FAA and other authorities react now looks critical to ensuring safety in commercial aviation and the safe use of drones.
March's air scare came courtesy of a drone flying dangerously close to a US Airways flight. Not only was the drone too close for comfort, but the pilot "was sure he had collided with it," it was so close. It's pretty clear that the blame for this close call does not rest on US Airways, now controlled by American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL), as this could have happened to any airline and the aircraft was following its ordinary flight path.
As of this writing, the FAA has not been able to track down the operator of the drone, but even if the FAA had, it still would not solve the ongoing issue. Based on the pilot's account of the event, the drone appears to have come close enough that a little bad luck could have had the drone sucked into an aircraft engine.
But sucking in a drone is much more dangerous than sucking in a bird. Unlike a bird, most drones are made of metal or some type of stronger composite material, making them more damaging to the turbine blades and surrounding engine.
Making it even more dangerous, drones have to contain some type of power source. For some, this may be highly flammable gasoline, and many others use lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries contain a volatile chemical mix that electric cars control through extensive cooling systems, reinforcement from damage, and the automatic cutting of power in the event of a collision. However, no drone's battery management system is designed to control its batteries after being sliced to pieces in a jet engine.
Solving the issue
Obviously, a collision between a drone and an airplane is highly dangerous, and with drones increasing in popularity, both among individuals and corporations, finding a way to avoid these potentially deadly collisions should be high priority.
The first part to prevent such collisions comes through regulation of drone usage. Some of the most obvious rules to put in place would be restrictions on drone operations near airports and above certain altitudes. This would help to prevent events like the one in March while still allowing aspiring drone operators like Amazon.com to test out their latest delivery methods.
While companies like Amazon.com couldn't go above certain altitudes, delivery of packages could still be accomplished from lower altitudes. Additionally, avoiding airports shouldn't be a major problem for would-be drone operators. Unless your business has extensive airport deliveries, alternative routes could easily be selected to avoid aircraft takeoffs and landings.
The second part to protect airline passengers addresses a dangerous form of drone usage that could become a real threat unless steps are taken quickly. We can only assume that the operator of the drone involved in the March incident didn't mean to fly it so close to a passenger aircraft.
But what if someone else were to use a drone as a weapon? With the high level of security we put in place at airports, its definitely worth considering the potential for a criminal or terrorist to use a drone in an attempt to deliberately cause damage.
Fighting back against those who deliberately want to cause damage is more difficult, but again, a few key rules and actions could make significant progress in confronting the threat. Mandating that drones be equipped with transponders would help authorities detect drones as they approach airports and flight paths. Transponders would also be useful in detecting drones that have violated altitude or airport vicinity rules whether the drone operator has a criminal intent or not.
Making drones safer
The incident from March should serve as a wake-up call that effectively regulating drone operations is critical to ensuring safe travel for all airline passengers and smooth operation for airlines. By implementing a few airport and altitude restrictions, we can reduce the chances that such an incident will happen again. Additionally, requiring drones to be equipped with transponders can warn authorities and pilots about drones that pose a danger by violating the rules in place.
Lastly, I don't claim to be an expert on security matters and can only write from what I see are a few ways that drone regulations can make the skies safer while not overly restricting the operations of companies that are considering the usage of drones as part of their business. Airline investors, passengers, drone operators, and others concerned with the safety of air travel should do what they can to make sure that the operation of drones doesn't threaten the safety of others.
Alexander MacLennan owns shares of and has options on American Airlines Group. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.