OSU study: Pilots can’t see drones when approaching runway

STILLWATER, Okla. (KFOR) – A new study by researchers at Oklahoma State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University shows pilots approaching the airstrip can rarely see drones and virtually never detect the drones when they’re motionless in the airspace.

During the experiment, certificated pilots failed to see a drone during 28 of 40 close encounters, researchers with Oklahoma State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University reported.

The success rate became even worse when the drones remained motionless during the pilots’ descent with only 3 out of 22 motionless drones spotted by the pilots.

“Dangerous close encounters between aircraft and drones are becoming an increasingly common problem,” Dr. Ryan J. Wallace, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle said. “Statistics on pilot sightings of drones continue to increase year over year, and what is being reported by pilots is probably just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of the time, unmanned aircraft are not being seen by pilots.”

According to the research, even in a best-case scenario, the pilot would have only about 21 seconds to avoid a collision.

“That might be enough time if the drone was hovering in one spot, but not nearly enough if it’s in flight, headed for the aircraft,” said Dr. Matt Vance, assistant professor of aviation and space at Oklahoma State. “The situation is far more dangerous when both aircraft are moving. Our eyes are attuned to movement. When a drone is not moving, it becomes part of the background.”

The final approach to the tarmac is an especially risky time for a drone encounter.

“It can catch you unaware and you have little time to react,” explained Dr. Jon M. Loffi, associate professor of aviation and space at Oklahoma State. “You don’t have the altitude to maneuver safely, and if an engine ingests a drone, that could bring the aircraft down.”

Currently, there are more than 1.4 million registered, and likely many more unregistered drones in the United States, and they continue to proliferate, Wallace said.

Click here to learn more about the team’s next project to help aide pilots in this growing problem.

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