A recent incident almost caused an accident involving two medical helicopters with young patients on board trying to get to the hospital.
There are laws and regulations in place to make sure everyone stays safe in the air but local pilots are seeing a growing trend of recreational drone operators breaking those laws and flying drones in areas in which they shouldn't. It’s putting lives in danger.
Pilot Erik Bratton is the safety director at Hospital Wing, a nonprofit air medical transport service. He was working last Monday when two choppers with child patients were trying to land at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and spotted a nearby drone.
“We don't normally look for airborne hazards. Drones are usually small. They're not lit. They don't have any communication ability,” said Bratton.
Here's what Bratton said happened the night of June 12. The first chopper was coming in from the west and landed on Le Bonheur's helipad. Shortly after, the pilot spotted a drone and, for safety reasons, could not take off. That forced the second chopper to land six blocks south at a different helipad.
An ambulance had to then take the patient back to Le Bonheur, wasting precious minutes. Bratton said the drone was hovering under the aircraft as it approached. Drone operators with little knowledge of when and where drones can fly presents two threats.
One is obvious: a mid-air collision. “It could bring the aircraft down catastrophically. It could be a chain of events that starts this really uncontrollable at that point,” Bratton said. The second threat is a diversion, which is what happened last Monday. “For a critical patient, say they're coming in as a trauma going to Regional One, your Level I trauma center in the area. Well that can mean life or death,” said Bratton.
The laws and regulations concerning drones are still evolving.
In May of this year, a federal appeals court struck down the Federal Aviation Administration's requirement that hobby drones be registered. Legislation was recently introduced that would give state and local authorities the power to regulate hobbyists.
The ongoing issue over where drones can fly will also be debated in the bill. In the meantime, pilots such as Bratton will have to keep a better watch for the unknown.
“Even if you don't have to register, it doesn't alleviate the fact that you have to follow the rules,” he said.
Congressional committees are scheduled to start considering the FAA Reauthorization Bill later this month.
Hospital Wing is developing an educational program to educate new drone owners. You can see its information here.
To see a list of the rules hobbyists must follow, click here.