It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Oh no, it’s a bird attacking my drone!
Airspace is a shared space. This probably is not more obvious to anyone than a drone pilot. Helicopters, planes, birds, other drones, powerlines, even hot air balloons, all these things can pose a risk not only to a drone pilot and their equipment, but also to anyone in said aerial vehicles and non-participants (people not involved in a mission). Beyond learning what legally a drone pilot needs to watch for in your standard Part 107 class, we at CompassDrone as the true drone experts wanted to give you a more nuanced understanding of what a pilot will commonly encounter in the field and how to respond and plan appropriately. We hope these tips from our countless hours and flights in the field will help make your team safer and more successful in the field.
The first aerial obstacles to consider are low flying planes and helicopters. Sure, you did your planning, know your airspace classification, and have your FAA LAANC Provider open. But how about the situations in which your mission is in a major rural farming area in springtime? Not all crop dusters will show up on your LAANC Provider. Or if you have an important project near a training airport? You cannot always wait for all the aircraft to be on the ground long enough to complete your mission. In the case of crop dusters and rural areas, one simple solution is to bring a VO, or visual observer, even if it is a standard photogrammetry mission that can be done by one person. This can also double as a great time to bring a novice pilot out to the field to train, see the risks involved with relatively straightforward missions, and ultimately become a better pilot sooner. There are also apps designed specifically to track crop dusters, and these can be found with a little internet research. In the case of local and training airports, if there seems to constantly be multiple planes in the local airspace, a simple yet underestimated solution is to call the airport and speak with someone. Although not all airport administrators will be sympathetic to drone pilots and their missions, some will be. Even if they are not willing to implement a temporary stop on flights, they may at least be able to provide a schedule of flights which can make planning drone missions easier and safer.
Another aerial obstacle which is commonly encountered are our feathered friends in the skies, birds. While they are generally easy to see and avoid, they are still a topic worth discussing. Legally, a drone pilot is obligated to avoid causing a “take” to many species of birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which protects Geese, Falcons, Albatross and many others bird species. Bald and Golden Eagles also have their own protection act. A “take” in this case includes simply disturbing or harassing these birds, among other antagonistic acts. Many areas in the US, both remote and urban, will have closure policies for nesting raptors, such as Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. These would obviously be places and times to avoid flying, even if the rest of the year drone flights are permitted. It can also be wise to reach out to local birder groups in the area you will be flying in to get tips on hotspots of nesting sites. Birds can be territorial, so flying in their area or near a nest can cause a disturbance to the point that they may become hostile to a drone. We have found that bigger drones appear more aggressive to most birds, although smaller drones such as the Phantom series are more likely to actually be taken out by a bird. Birds may also “size up” a drone, which can be seen by them flying near or diving at a drone, and this can be a good warning sign to watch for. A final tip for being prepared when flying around birds is drone insurance. This can be obtained through services like CoverDrone, or to protect a fleet of drones and get more robust coverage, we at CompassDrone can set a team up with DJI Shield, DJI’s comprehensive drone fleet insurance program.
We hope this article sheds light on the most pertinent risks a drone pilot will encounter in the field. While birds at first glance seem to be easy to avoid in most missions, taking the time to understand their place in the sky will only make a pilot more knowledgeable and capable. And for low flying planes and helicopters, while many rules under the CFR Part 107 are specifically designed around keeping manned pilots and aircraft safe, we believe that knowing additional information to avoid hitting a manned aircraft, as one of our Part 107 instructors and professional helicopter pilots put it, “…can be the difference between me making it home to my kids at the end of the day, or not.”