Eye in the Sky: Why Pilots May Not See Your Drone

In certain conditions, commercial pilots fly solely by instrument, meaning they might not see drones until it's too late.

Photo Caption: A foggy view from the cockpit of a plane coming in for a landing.

The idea that pilots can see and avoid an UAV while flying in clear air is one that I do not support. (Perhaps, in a best-case scenario, a large octocopter with flashing strobes against a very contrasted background may be seen by a very sharp-eyed cub pilot flying his airplane very slowly at 50 mph.

Hopefully he somehow was warned or knew about the UAV already. Hopefully he is not on a collision course with it already. Hopefully the Octocopter is slightly higher, so it stands out against a pale sky or overcast conditions. Hopefully the UAV is not moving towards the airplane. In this most hopeful situation, there is a chance he would be able to “see and avoid” the UAV… and even that is pushing it.) But the idea that a pilot will ever see a UAV while in or near clouds? Not going to happen.

There are a number of other arguments that can be made as well:

  • An electrically-driven UAV flying into a cloud or layer of fog that is made of water… think about it.

  • Flying a UAV beyond line of sight (into a cloud or fog) means you actually don’t know where it is. Even if you have a map that shows it’s location, in the US, this kind of flying is not legal. Even where it is legal, it is a bad idea.

  • This technology is new. It has glitches, and fly-aways do occur. The software might glitch, and the the hardware might as well. One faulty motor and the UAV could end up flying out of control. If you can’t see the UAV, then you might not know what is happening at all. Even if you can see your FPV screen, all you will see is white/gray, so you will have no idea if you are spinning out of control or not.

  • Temperature in the clouds may be vastly different from where you are. Some UAVs have operating temperature limitations. The reason clouds form is because moist air reaches a level of pressure in the atmosphere below which the water vapor held in the air will condense due to over-saturation. By definition, there will be a lower temperature in the clouds. This drop in temperature may significantly decrease battery power. In some cases, ice build up may be possible, freezing up the motors or spoiling the aerodynamic properties of the propellors. However, it is likely that water would short out the electronics before this happened.

  • If you choose to fly above a thin layer of fog or cloud, not only will it be difficult or impossible to determine the location of the UAV, it may be incredibly difficult to judge your speed and you may fly right out of radio range without knowing it.

Further learning about Instrument Flying is encouraged and can be found here:

The Instrument Flying Handbook (it’s a free eBook published by the FAA)
FAA Chapter on Airspace

About the Author

Michael Carlini is the owner of Southern Oregon Drone, a company that specializes in drone photography, videography, and marketing. Carlini acquired his pilot’s license at the age of 18 while still in high school in Medford, Oregon. Four years later, having just graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene with a degree in Marketing, it was time to get back into aviation. Over the next couple months, Carlini went on to complete multi-engine training and was on his way to a career flying airplanes when a job opportunity to fly drones and capture aerial photos and videos for a real estate agent in the Rogue Valley came up on Craigslist.  An adventure photography enthusiast, Michael decided to give aerial real estate photography a shot.


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Article Topics

Robot Fun · Drones · Advice & Opinion · All Topics

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