Twin Cities on drone ‘close calls’ list

Two Twin Cities airports are included in a rash of drone “close calls” with aircraft, according to reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Washington Post, which obtained the reports, said more than a dozen incidents occurred on Sunday alone, a fact the FAA apparently wanted to keep secret.

Since the beginning of the month, there have been more than 70 “close calls.”

In St. Paul on Monday, a helicopter pilot reported a drone came within 50 feet, while flying about three miles northeast of the city. The drone was monitoring a protest, according to the newspaper.

Earlier in the month — August 3 — a Shuttle America pilot said a drone was operating within 50 feet of the jet as it approached Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport at about 1500 feet.

Despite a prohibition against small drones flying within five miles of airports or above 400 feet, the FAA documents show that the robotic aircraft have become pervasive intruders, hovering near runways and busy air traffic corridors.

Pilots are also spotting the small drones at altitudes previously unheard of — higher than 10,000 feet. On May 30, crews from Caribbean Airlines and JetBlue separately reported seeing a drone with colored lights at an altitude of 12,000 feet about 25 miles southeast of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.

The FAA reports are brief and preliminary in nature. In some cases, follow-up investigations determined that objects pilots had assumed to be drones were in fact something else.

Officials, obviously, are worried about terrorist threats, but the threat posed by people with drones who don’t know airspace rules also represents a threat.

As MPR’s Euan Kerr reports, for example, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Thomson Reuters confirmed that MnDOT had ordered them to stop flying an unmanned aircraft system that is documenting the progress of crop artist Stan Herd’s reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Olive Trees” on a one-acre plot owned by Thomson Reuters in Eagan.

The organizers said they had complied with rules not to fly within five miles of an airport and to stay below 400 feet, but that ignored that the plot of land falls within MSP’s so-categorized Class B airspace, which extends from the surface to 10,000 feet, as indicated by the inner ring on an aviational sectional chart.


Regulations announced in February by the FAA would prohibit drones inside that airspace without previous permission.

“There is a big difference between what is not recommended and what is actually illegal,” former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall wrote in an op-ed this week. “While endangering an aircraft is already a federal crime, trying to shoe horn that rule onto unregulated drones is problematic.”

Some drone makers’ software — DJI’s, for one — make the aircraft inoperable within 1.6 miles of airports like Minneapolis St. Paul. But that distinction has little to do with the FAA’s Class B designation, which extends roughly to Highway 52 to the east and highway 55 to the southeast.

“It’s far too early to call the situation a crisis,” CityLab’s Julian Specter wrote this week. “Finding that regulatory balance isn’t easy when it comes to technology. Laws shouldn’t be hypothetical; they should respond to real needs and dangers of the populace. But if lawmakers wait too long to figure out those dangers, they end up watching drones shut down firefighting operations because nobody anticipated that would happen when the products first appeared on the market.”

  • Gary F

    I can see this becoming more and more of a problem in the city and the burbs. In out state or rural areas, the drone problem will get taken care of by the firm of Remington, Mossberg, and Browning.

    • The flaw in the FAA approach is the assumption that people will follow rules. They won’t. See “Driving, Distracted.”

    • Khatti

      Oh yeah, this will happen if said drone truly becomes annoying–but first they actually have to become annoying.

  • johnepeacock

    I believe you can disable the GPS on most drones, rendering the ability to limit where they fly to just be in the judgement of the operator anyway. So, even if it’s a law, it still has the same effect as the “don’t text while driving” law.

  • Khatti

    In order for a drone owner to not know the rules concerning airports he or she would have to have been asleep under an apple tree for at least the last three years.

    • They might well know the “rules” regarding airports. But they don’t know the air space rules. Everything thinks as long as they’re five miles away from an airport, they’re good. That’s not necessarily true at all.

  • Khatti

    I do have to ask though, is a drone that can fly at twelve thousand feet the sort of thing you can pick up at Radio Shack?

    • Why is 12,000 the magic number in your question? Just curious.

      • Khatti

        You probably have a better answer to this than I do–but twelve thousand feet seems more the sort of thing that a Predator would do rather than one of these little whirlybobs you see buzzing around using the toy-truck controls. Indeed, one of the problems I see would be the transmitter you would need to reach something at twelve thousand feet.

        • jon

          Radio signal strength on a drone isn’t as big of an issue as you’d think.

          Astronauts on the space station have used Ham radio gear broadcasting at 5 watts to communicate with ground stations… they are well about 12,000 feet (which is mentioned in both your comments and the article, and I think why you choose that number)
          You can pull 5 watts of RF out of 6 AA batteries and still broadcast for about an hour (longer than most drone batteries last)
          Voyager 1 is broadcasting back to earth from outside the solar system (maybe) with a radio that is only capable of 20 watts, though has a very directional antenna pointed at earth, and we’ve got an even larger dish pointed right back at it.
          Without anything between two radio signals they go pretty far with out a lot of power.
          Though I think there is a cap on the open radio spectrum to broadcast at no more than 1W, of course since you are only controlling one drone an effective antenna pointed at the drone could boost that and potentially still be legal (even higher wattages might be legal depending on the frequency… I’d need to do some research). But no matter what the case, it seems like the signal getting to 1200 feet would be easy enough.

          I’d think for most drone’s you’d buy commercially getting to 12,000 feet (from sea level at least) would be an issue, just because it’d take so long to get there the battery would be dead by the time it got up that high.

          At some location in the Rockies getting a drone to 12,000 feet would mean laying it flat on the ground or even throwing it off the edge of a cliff, so expecting that people would make and sell drones that would fly at that altitude doesn’t seem unreasonable… but the report quoted above happened southeast JFK in NY, which is pretty much sea level by definition I’d think.

          • The issue with getting to 12,000 feet isn’t time, it’s performance.

            I just don’t see such a thinly powered aircraft being able to get up that high.

            The air gets awfully thin as you go higher and I just don’t think the prop can bite off enough air to sustain lift. At least in the summer.

          • jon

            There are youtube videos from quadcopters that claim to be pretty high up in the mountains.


            They even say in the description it was a Phantom 2 Vision+
            Google shopping puts it between ~$500-$1300 dollars (I’m guessing depending on camera and accessories? Looks like they sell a 2w range extender transmitter, default is 100 mw according to the manufacture site.)

            Internet search on the Phantom 2 Vision+ suggests only about 25 minutes of flight… and 12,000 feet is way up (and the rotors are probably running pretty close to full steam just to maintain altitude at that point) So I doubt this drone could make it from sea level, but it clearly can be done.

            I’m guessing more costly drones have better performance, bigger props, more lift, and bigger batteries…

          • The guy in Ireland, using a DJI Phantom 3 only got to 4k

          • jon

            I believe 4k is the number of scan lines from the camera, not the altitude, (saw it on the manufactures site when I was looking at the drone specs).
            You’d probably have a substantially easier time making an estimate of how high up he actually was than I would, I’d think (hope) you’d have more experience with that.

            Also would they even use feet as a measurement in Ireland, I don’t know if they use feet in general aviation internationally, but it wouldn’t surprise me since they standardized around English. But the drone crowd would probably use what ever measure they are most comfortable with, probably meters in this case, since as you mentioned in the article the drone crowd doesn’t play well with general aviation…

          • Khatti

            You’re are right about why I chose 12,000 feet. A pilot claimed to see a drone at that altitude twenty-five miles south of John F. Kennedy. The question I keep asking (indirectly) is how much something like this would cost, and is it likely it would belong to a quote/unquote “Average Citizen”?

          • Boy, I don’t see how. One of the problems here is people started calling everything without a person in it “a drone.” So I don’t know if that guy saw a quadcopter or a rootin’ tootin’ big UAV.

          • Joseph

            Based on the definition, there are a lot of people walking around that are, in effect, drones.

  • Average_Minnesotan

    I wish journalists would cover other industries that ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE FATALITIES as breathlessly as they cover this drone tempest in a teapot.

    There were 1,740 transportation industry-related fatal injuries in 2013, but nobody is proposing we ban driving, are they?

    796 fatalities in construction in 2013. Perhaps we should stop building things in the United States? Where’s the Washington Post’s investigation into construction deaths in America?

    Agriculture and forestry experienced 479 deaths in 2013. Where are the stories about lax regulation in agriculture and forestry?

    US Mining fatalities in 2013: 600. Where’s the outrage over 600 American’s dying in the mining industry?

    Considering all this, drones may be an irritant but are not the menace mainstream media make them out to be.

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