Close encounters of the drone kind becoming more common, U of C study says

A new University of Calgary study says there are now more drones in the air than piloted aircraft, which has led rising incidents of close calls.

Professor worries it's only a matter of time before a serious incident, suggests more education for hobbyists

A University of Calgary study shows there are increasing incident of near misses between drones and piloted aircraft. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

There are now more drones in the air than piloted aircraft — which has led to rising incidents of close calls, says a new University of Calgary study.

The study, published online in the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, examines drone incident data in Canada from Transport Canada's civil aviation daily occurrence reporting system database.

U of C associate professor of geography Chris Hugenholtz, one of the co-authors of the study, says there were 355 drone incidents reported in Canadian airspace between November 2005 and December 2016. 

He says 22 per cent of those involved close encounters between drones and piloted aircraft. A close encounter — also called a near miss — is classified as anything within 152 metres of an aircraft. 

Hugenholtz worries it's only a matter of time before the near misses turn into something worse, he told the Calgary Eyeopener.

There have been more than 350 near misses between drones and piloted aircraft, all caused by hobbyists, says a U of C study. (Bombardier)

'Bounced off aircraft in the U.K.'

"Our data suggests there is an increase. And if in fact you put the number of close encounters and number of sightings together ... and if you look at 2016, every other day there was either a sighting or a close encounter in Canadian airspace," said Hugenholtz.

Though there have been no collisions in Canada, Hugenholtz says close encounters have "sometimes required evasive maneuvering," and have all been noted by pilots flying planes. 

"They have bounced off aircraft in the U.K. We haven't had an incident here, but it's not the sort of thing we don't want to find out," he said. 

The implications, he says, are potentially serious.

"It could vary tremendously as to how the impact would occur. But I think our numbers point to a rising probability of those kind of events occurring if we don't find a way of increasing airspace safety," said Hugenholtz.

Drones are proving useful for all kinds of professional applications, such as search and rescue or research, says a University of Calgary professor. (CBC)

Hobbyists involved in most near misses

The vast majority of the incidents involve drone operators who are not licensed by Transport Canada.

Hugenholtz says he's not sure why people are flying drones so close to an airport. Rules stipulated that drones cannot fly within nine kilometres of an airport or more than 90 metres off the ground. 

"I think people are either uninformed about the types of rules and regulations, or perhaps there are individuals ignoring them and simply taking the drone out for recreational purposes."

Holgenholtz believes the hobby group are involved in the vast majority of incidents. 

"Professional groups have all certifications and understand where they can't fly. The recreation group don't have to go through filling out paperwork ... they may look at the Transport Canada website to find out rules and regulations." 

Meanwhile, Holgenholtz says there needs to be a combination of education and technology-based solutions to prevent drones from accessing airspace or taking where they shouldn't be, or designated flying areas.

But that might be difficult to enforce. 

"It's very challenging to enforce the rules. You can operate (drones) over the Internet  ... you don't have to fly it physically. That's the tricky piece."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener