Airplane pilots have been warily eyeing drones, as if they’re Amity Island cops and the unmanned machines are actually giant sharks. Humans and unmanned vehicles are still circling in the air with, luckily, no catastrophic third acts. But close calls — though quite rare, given the estimated million or so drones sold last holiday season — are getting increasingly closer.
To hear airspace investigators tell it, one of the closest shaves to date, French aviation security officials at Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA) report that in a February incident above Charles de Gaulle airport northeast of Paris, an Airbus A320 captain had to disable autopilot and swerve to avoid a wayward quadcopter.
The drone passed within five meters (about 16 feet) of the Airbus, the BEA officers say. Although no one was hurt, the BEA classified the incident as “serious” and started a full investigation.
This isn’t an isolated incident. A survey of British airspace revealed 23 “near-misses” between April and October 2015. In October, a California Highway Patrol helicopter evaded a drone flying 700 to 800 feet up (twice as high as FAA limits for a quadcopter); the drone owner later apologized but claimed he’d lost control of the UAV and its autopilot malfunctioned.
What happens in the aftermath of a drone collision with a piloted aircraft is still up for debate — it hasn’t happened yet. Mathematical models, however, indicate that a drone sucked into a jet engine could damage the turbine substantially more than a bird, as guts and bone are squishier than plastic and metal.