Drone Sightings (2014-2018) from the FAA

Many have been talking about the FAA’s drone sightings reports. We have constantly seen in the news the reports. Others in the industry cite the drone sightings as evidence of the greater need for the government(s) to do something by creating regulations. Some counter-drone companies have used it to show a need for their product.  Regardless of where you come from in the industry and your motives, we need to accurately understand the drone sightings data.

The Government Accountability Office’s report in May 2018 accurately summed the situation up, “FAA told us that most of the reports cannot be verified because a small UAS typically is not detected by radar, the small UAS pilot is usually not identified, or the small UAS or other physical evidence is not recovered. FAA and some aviation industry stakeholders also told us that the reliability of many of the reports is questionable; FAA explained that this is because pilots can have difficulty positively identifying objects as small UAS, given their small size, their distance from the observed position, the speeds at which a manned aircraft and a UAS are operating, or the various factors competing for the pilot’s attention. ”

Update: UAS Weekly reported, “Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) Drone Sightings Working Group released a new report on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 3,714 drone sightings reports collected by flight crews, air traffic controllers and citizens from November 2015 to March 2017. The report found that only a small percentage of drone reports pose a safety risk, while the vast majority are simply sightings.” Report is located here. 

Table of Contents:

Quick Summary of the Drone Sightings:

  • The FAA has inaccurately reported the drone sightings data they have published.
  • There are more drone sightings in populated areas.
  • There are more drone sightings in warmer months than colder.
  • States with larger populations have more drone sightings.
  • The drone sightings over time are steadily growing.
  • Any discussions we have on this topic should be using numbers and not percentages or words.

Basically, population and weather/climate are the determining factors of when and where you’ll have drone sightings.

Fact Checking the FAA’s Drone Sightings Data:

  • The Academy of Model Aeronautics, as well as others, have brought up the drone sightings data. The AMA has multiple reports analyzing the data which called into questions much of the data. Some of the drone sightings are law enforcement drones, balloons, or just harmless drone sightings.  Here is a striking quote from their 5/10/2017 report, “In AMA’s previous analysis, AMA found that 3.5% (August 2015) and 3.3% (March 2016) of sightings included the explicit notation of’ ‘NMAC’ (near mid-air collision) or ‘near miss.’ Our analysis of the newest 1,270 records released in February 2017 show about the same percentage of near misses in the new data. Just 3.4% of sightings in the February 2017 data contains a specific notation indicating a near miss.” Here are some of the AMA’s reports:
  • The FAA even commented on this in the small unmanned aircraft registration rule, “Some commenters specifically found fault with FAA’s reliance on increased number of UAS ‘incidents’ reported to the FAA by manned aircraft pilots. Several commenters noted that the AMA analyzed those reported ‘incidents’ and found that out of the 764 reported records, only 27 (or 3.5%) were identified as a near mid-air collision, with nearly all of those involving government-authorized military drones. The commenters noted that most of the ‘incidents’ have merely been sightings of UAS. One individual pointed out that the FAA has published no analysis of its own ‘sightings’ data; nor has it disputed the AMA’s analysis of that data. This individual also asserted that a doubling in the rate of UAS ‘sightings’ in 2015 is consistent with the rate of growth of consumer small UAS, and is not cause for overreaction.”
  • Drone Sightings Fact Check HuertaMichael Huerta, the head of the FAA, said at Interdrone in September 2107, “We’re receiving an average of about 200 drone-sighting reports from pilots each month this year.” This is not accurate. The average for the year through August was 190. Notice that Huerta mentioned the number at the tail end of the cycle. See the graph. If he would have made the statement the next month in October, the average would have been 188.6. The average would have continued to decrease for the next so many months. Why did they not use the 6 month average from October to March which was 133.5?
  • On 10/12/2017, the FAA requested information collection review from OIRA to collect information for their LAANC system. The FAA said, “Today there are an average of 250 safety reports a month, or approximately 1,500 over a six-month period, associated with a potential risk of an incident between manned aircraft and a UAS.”  The big problem with this was the average is NOT 250!  In the preceding 6 months, the total  (1,295) was LESS than 1,500 and will be LESS than 1,500 in the upcoming 6 months based on previous data trends. In other words, this information was completely wrong. The average and the 6 month total were both completely wrong.

Important Thoughts on the Drone Sightings Data:

  • The FAA has done a bad job at “cleaning” the data. What you end with is this large number that is thrown out all over the place on the news. Many think the total number is the actual number of drone near misses because they don’t really bother to look further into the data.  Many of the drone sightings are simply harmless sightings that could be lawfully flying drone individuals. The FAA’s Federal Register indicated that 14,334 COAs have already been issued for flights near airports.  The FAA gave us some big numbers without indicating how many of these “sightings” were lawful or not. They didn’t “clean” the data for lawful flights.  The May 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said, “FAA also told us that some of the reports, despite the reporting pilots’ concerns, may have involved UAS operating in a safe and authorized manner.”
    • At the 2019 FAA Symposium, a powerpoint slide said that there have been over 37,000 manual authorizations granted and 87,000 automated authorizations granted.  This means that there over 124,000 authorizations allowing drones to fly near airports. 
  • The FAA has done a very poor job on giving access to the data. One would think it was intentionally created in such a way as to not be easily searchable. Before you read my points below, compare it to the FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing portal. Just search around a little bit and you’ll see how just in-depth and detailed the data is. You’ll also notice that it is very searchable. Just compare these two screenshots to see what I mean.

FAA’s Excel Spreadsheet of Drone Sightings


FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing

FAA accident database.

  • I’ll give you some examples of why I  say the data is hard to work with (if not intentionally designed to be that way).
    • The quarters do not have consistent formats which means you have to rearrange things. You’re going to have to do copy and pasting and use the left, right, or mid extraction function a bunch. Even that doesn’t work so well because of the terms and format change.
    • A whole quarter has an apostrophe in front of EVERY date which prevents you from sorting and totaling by date unless you remove it.
    • The data in the preliminary reports are all in one chunk for each line so you have to use more advanced Excel extraction formulas to extract the text which prevents lay people from analyzing the data.
    • The dates have times included in the dates which create more problems for sorting. The time isn’t extracted to its own column. You have to use the text to column function to fix this.
  • Why in the world has the FAA NOT done something similar to this with FAA enforcement actions against drone flyers? The FAA is very secretive about the prosecutions against illegal and unsafe drone flyers. We only learned about 23 enforcement actions against drone operators after a reporter at Motherboard had to file a FOIA request and wait months to obtain the information. Since then, another reporter asked the FAA and received the total from 2014 – summer 2017.  A whopping 48 prosecutions. This was further corroborated by the U.S. GAO report which created this chart:drone-enforcement-actions-table
  • The FAA CAN create a drone enforcement database. They are already doing this with others under the FAA’s jurisdiction. See the FAA’s enforcement action reports. Compare those enforcement reports to the drone sightings data and you’ll see once again the drone sightings data is just poorly put together. enforcement-reports-drone-sightings
  • Why is it that the Academy of Model Aeronautics and I have published material on this and not the FAA? 

Graphs Created from the Drone Sightings Report:

These totals and graphs are based on data from 11/13/14 to 3/31/2018.




How You Can Use the Data:

Drone Operators: If you are operating near large populations, during the day, or during warmer months, you have a greater chance of having problems with local law enforcement misidentifying you as the other reckless crazy guy flying. Additionally, if you live near a large population that has a warm climate, you have a greater chance of having more state drone laws and/or local laws being created to counter the more numerous drone sightings.

Manned Pilots:  Drones typically fly around populated areas during warm weather. Take this into account when doing safety risk management.

Cities & States: If you don’t have that much of a population, you should think twice about creating a drone law as it will impact businesses greater than it will benefit the public which is small.  Conversely, if you are a large city or heavily populated state, you should seriously consider figuring out a legal game plan for dealing with the drones.  FAA is doing its pilot program to work with local governments to create state and local drone laws. There are issues with that. See that article for more details.

Practical Suggestions for the FAA:

  • Start publishing the enforcement actions against illegal and unsafe operators.
  • Start doing more enforcement actions against the illegal and unsafe operators which are all over the internet. Yes, I know it might be hard to find SOME of the bad actors but you literally have, not fruit, but fruit gift baskets laying on the ground of people you can go after right now.
  • Change your enforcement philosophy so you aren’t so relaxed with drone operators. The common feeling in the drone community is you get one free stupid stunt and THEN the FAA might come after it you. Meanwhile, all the LAWFUL operators are losing business or having to deal with state and local regulations being created because of the FAA’s inactivity.

The FAA is not pro-business. Consistent inactivity hurts the drone industry and businesses.