Drone Operator Blamed for Collision With Helicopter in New York

  • Drone struck Army helicopter Sept. 21 near Staten Island
  • NTSB releases report on first U.S. mid-air drone collision

A DJI Phantom 4 Pro Quadcopter drone.

Photographer: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

A recreational operator, who didn’t know that federal authorities had temporarily banned all drone flights in New York, was to blame for a September collision between his recreational device aircraft and an Army helicopter.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday also cited the drone operator’s failure to see the helicopter because the device was flying so far away it was out of his sight. The drone operator, who wasn’t identified in the short report, was in Brooklyn and 2.5 miles away from the device, the NTSB concluded. The crash happened just offshore of Staten Island.

At the time of the accident, the United Nations General Assembly was meeting and flights in the area by civilian aircraft were prohibited, according to the NTSB. The Federal Aviation Administration also forbids drone operators from flying beyond their line of sight.

The collision was the first confirmed mid-air impact between a manned aircraft and one of the millions of drones bought in the U.S. in recent years. Reports of safety incidents involving drones have climbed continually and averaged more than 200 a month last summer, according to federal data.

The drone was an SZ DJI Technology Co. Phantom 4, a small device that is made by the world’s largest civilian unmanned aircraft manufacturer.

The NTSB report comes as the FAA is wrestling with multiple drone-safety issues. They include whether to allow routine flights over people, which drones should be required to send radio beacons with their identity and location, and how to build a low-level air-traffic system for the small consumer flying devices.

Small drones like the one involved in the New York collision weigh only a few pounds, but they contain metal motors and cameras that can cause significant damage to a jetliner at high speeds, a study commissioned by the FAA found last month. While the study found it was unlikely a drone impact alone could take down an airliner, it could cause enough damage to shut down a jet engine.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is also looking into an incident in Quebec on Oct. 12 when a small drone struck a charter flight carrying six passengers. The plane suffered minor damage to its left wing and landed safely.

While civilian drones are increasingly equipped with GPS devices that limit flights to within 400 feet (122 meters) from the ground and within sight of the operator -- which is supposed to be the legal restrictions -- incident reports to the FAA suggest the devices aren’t working as designed and the rules are widely ignored.

On Sept. 28, for example, pilots on a Boeing Co. 737-800 that had just taken off from Chicago O’Hare International Airport reported spotting a drone at 9,000 feet altitude. The aircraft is a widely used airliner, but the name of the carrier wasn’t identified.

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