Federal Drone Sighting Reports See Uptick In North Dakota, U.S.

North Dakota saw an increase in the number of potential drone sightings reported to the Federal Aviation Administration near airports or manned aircraft in 2016, according to federal data.

Three sightings of drones were reported in Fargo and a fourth recorded in Bismarck — up from a total of two sightings in 2015. The sightings are reported to notify the FAA of potentially dangerous and illegal drone flights. 

The latest North Dakota reports were included in data reflecting 1,274 drone sightings across the United States documented from February to September 2016. During a similar time period in 2015, the FAA logged 874 potential drone sightings nationwide.

The number of possible sightings continues to increase alongside the country’s growing interest in using drones for recreational and business purposes.

The uptick in sightings does cause concern for federal safety officials, members of the commercial drone industry and hobby organizations as the data contains reports of pilots claiming drones hit their aircraft. No collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone has been verified, the FAA said in a February news release.

“Every investigation has found that reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft,” the FAA wrote in the release.

None of the sightings in North Dakota were considered close calls, generally considered  a drone flying so close to another aircraft that its pilot takes evasive action to avoid a potential collision. Nationally, a recently published analysis by the Academy of Model Aeronautics found 27 instances where evasive action was taken —  about 3 percent of the reports.

The four sightings reported in 2016 in North Dakota are summarized below:

  1. On March 23, a notice to airmen for drone operations was filed for an area southeast of Hector International Airport in Fargo. The drone operator did not contact the airport’s air traffic control tower for coordination. The Fargo Flight Standards District Office was notified of the incident.
  2. On July 10, a helicopter pilot leaving a Bismarck hospital reported a drone flying the same altitude as the helicopter about 100 yards to the left. Bismarck police were notified of the drone operation.
  3. On Aug. 23, a pilot on aircraft that departed from the Fargo airport reported a drone operating just off airport property approximately 100 feet above the tops of nearby trees. The air traffic control tower did not receive notification of the drone operating in Class D airspace.
  4. On Sept. 14, a drone operator notified the air traffic control tower of Hector International that the controller for his aircraft had died, causing it to hover at 1,500 feet above ground level. After about 20 minutes, the operator notified the tower that the drone was safely on the ground. The report notes that three airplanes were holding for departure and another was inbound for the airport at the time of the incident.

Under federal regulations for commercial drones, known as Part 107, drone operations are allowed within Class B, C, D and E airspace as long as permission is received from the associated air traffic control tower. Hobbyists are asked to contact the tower if flying within five miles of an airport.

Not every sighting is indicative of drone operators breaking the law. As the AMA notes in its analysis of FAA sighting data, dozens of reports were made regarding drones that were likely flying legally based on information provided in the incident reports.

“In all data sets, the overwhelming majority of reports are simply sightings,” the AMA wrote.

The FAA, in partnership with organizations such as AMA, continues to encourage drone operators to educate themselves on regulations and exercise caution when flying.