Air alert: 8 dangerous drone incidents

Buzzing the White House, paralyzing airports, crashing into planes and power lines — we highlight the dangers of drones.

Civilian UAVs are used increasingly frequently for photo and video shooting, cargo delivery, search-and-rescue operations, and other purposes. In the interests of safety — of both the drones and their surroundings — some countries have already introduced rules and restrictions on their use. Alas, not all UAV owners know or follow them. And, like any electronic devices, drones can sometimes get out of hand. What are the potential consequences? Here are some examples.

White House down?

In January 2015, a drone crashed right on the lawn in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. An inebriated government officer had flown the drone from an apartment located near the official residence of the U.S. president, and lost control of it. According to the New York Times, he texted his friends, worried that the drone had gone down on the White House grounds, and then … went to sleep. Hearing news of a White House incident the following morning, the troublemaker owned up.

He was lucky: The investigation showed that before the crash, the drone was in uncontrolled flight, so the prosecutor’s office did not bring charges against the pilot. However, the incident highlighted an issue of White House security. The small drone breezed past radars designed to detect traditional aircraft and missiles — and its intentions could easily have been less innocent.

Shortly after the incident, the drone manufacturer released a firmware update for the model to prevent it from flying within a 25 km radius (about 15.5 miles) of the White House. The copters also become inoperable in the vicinity of airports, power plants, and other critical facilities. But not all drones have those built-in safeguards.

Airport chaos

In December 2018, drones paralyzed London’s Gatwick Airport. Planes were grounded for more than a day because of reports of drones over the airfield, which mysteriously appeared whenever the airport tried to reopen. The incident affected 140,000 passengers. About a thousand flights had to be canceled.

What’s more, the culprits were never found, leading to speculation that they didn’t even exist. The reports came exclusively from eyewitnesses; Gatwick’s security systems, as in the White House case, detected nothing. Moreover, to investigate the incident, the police deployed their own drones, which could have provoked more reported sightings.

Crash in the sky

In another accident that happened in 2017 in the Canadian province of Quebec, no eyewitnesses were present to prevent a drone collision. Coming in to land, a light-engine aircraft smashed into a UAV at an altitude of 450 meters (about 1,500 feet) — five times as high as copters are permitted. Fortunately, the aircraft with eight people on board suffered only minor damage and landed safely.

The consequences could have been far more serious. As researchers from the University of Dayton demonstrated last year, even a light drone can cause significant damage to a plane.

Drones vs. skyscrapers

A drone crash at the top of the Space Needle observation tower in Seattle almost led to tragedy. It was New Year’s Eve in 2016, and pyrotechnicians were prepping the festive fireworks. The copter blades, which continued to rotate for some time after the crash, were dangerously close to a cable running to the launch system. Fortunately, the workers were able to immobilize the drone.

After some effort, the drone owner was caught and fined. Though watching the video from the drone’s camera to determine where the ill-fated craft had taken off didn’t help the police, the serial number of the copter gave away the operator’s identity.

Training exercise

The famous Flying Scotsman, a passenger train that runs between the capitals of England and Scotland, also had an intimate encounter with a drone. In 2016, a month after a long renovation, the train was damaged by a UAV. A drone filming the train snagged a trackside tree, and its camera flew off into one of the rail cars. No one was hurt, but passengers were shaken by the loud bang.

And in April of this year, another trainspotting drone narrowly escaped a collision with the Scotsman. Had Lady Luck not intervened, the loud bang would likely have accompanied damage to vital equipment and serious injury.

A drone in the wheel

Cyclists are also at risk. In 2017 an aerial drone filming the Golden State Race Series in Rancho Cordova, California, crashed into a tree and fell onto the track. A drone fragment got caught in the front wheel of one of the cyclists, causing him to go over the handlebars. Fortunately, the cyclist was practically unharmed, and the owner of the drone promised to buy him a new wheel and helmet as compensation.

Three-hour power cut

In the town of West Hollywood, near Los Angeles, a drone was responsible for a three-hour blackout of several hundred houses. By irony of fate, the drone flew into the power line just a couple of weeks after the LA City Council had tightened its regulations on drone use.

Although it was daytime and people were out and about on the street, there were no casualties, although about 650 residents of West Hollywood were inconvenienced and had to wait until the line was repaired. Firefighters also blocked two lanes of Sunset Boulevard, where the collision occurred.

Drone swatting

Even if the operator is in control, and the drone in good condition, the flight can still end in tears. In New Zealand, for instance, a local resident shot down a drone that flew over his plot of land, and almost paid with jail time.

According to police and the drone operator, the device was not illegally filming private property, but capturing a video of a plot up for sale across the street from the defendant’s land. However, the plaintiffs were unable to prove to the court that the drone had not flown off-course. As a result, the shooter was acquitted.

Secure airspace

As you can see, drones are not only a convenient tool for photo/video shooting and other tasks, but can also be a potentially serious risk to human health and property. Fortunately, there exist technologies for the timely detection and neutralization of wayward drones. With that in mind, read this post for details of our antidrone solution.