Vast majority of FAA reports remain simple sightings

AMA’s analysis of the FAA reported sightings data confirms that the vast majority of reports are simply sightings of UAS sharing the airspace. Reported near misses and close calls remain very small – just 3.4%.


The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has published its usual analysis of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) new list of “drone sightings”.

Every few months, the FAA provides data of the UAV sightings reported. The latest reports list was released in February 2017 and covers the period February 1, 2016 through September 30, 2016.

Similar trends to those identified in the August 2015 and March 2016 data can be observed in the February 2017 dataset:

  1. The percentage of near misses/close calls remain low.
  2. Sightings include people following proper guidelines.
  3. The vast majority are simply sightings and some refer to non-UAV objects.
  4. A significant number of reports aren’t referred to law enforcement.
  5. Sightings sometimes involve wildfires and other emergency situations.

The FAA reminds us that it has “not verified any collision between civil aircraft and a civil drone.”

In the February 2017 data, the number of UAV sighting reports increased but this was expected as the FAA now claims more than 700,000 registered drone operators. Total reported sightings amounts to 2,616 since August 2015.

Putting both numbers into perspective indicates that sightings account for only 0.34% of total registered operators.

Key Findings

Percentage of near misses and close calls remain low

Vast majority of FAA reports remain simple sightings

Despite an increase in the number of cases, AMA observes that the percentage of near misses and close calls remains low after investigation, only 3.4%.

To date, the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone despite many pilot reports claiming drone strikes on their aircraft.

Instead, investigations found impact with birds or other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft.

Some drone sightings may be of people following proper guidelines

According to AMA’s analysis, there could be a significant number of reports that contain sightings of drones operating legally.

The FAA does not provide all the information necessary for a full case understanding, such as the authorizations granted to the pilot. However, metrics such as distance from airports and altitude of the drone are given to better grasp the situation.

For example, the AMA found out that 6.4% of February 2017 reports indicates drones flying below the 400 feet guideline.

Is it really a drone?

Vast majority of FAA reports remain simple sightings

The term drone continues to be used as a “catch-all” for any object spotted in the sky. Some reports also reveal other flying objects such as balloons or even a jet-pack.

A significant number of reports are not notified to local law enforcement

Vast majority of FAA reports remain simple sightings

While some reported UAV flights could be legal, the only way to verify is to notify local law enforcement. In the February 2017 data, only 70% of the cases were notified.

This is a declining number compared to the 71% in March 2016 and 80% to August 2015. As drone sightings increase, there is a serious need for  effective communication and coordination between the FAA and the local law enforcement authorities.

Sightings sometimes involve wildfires and other emergency situations

The AMA reminds flyers to stay away from wildfire or wildfire-related Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

In the February 2017 data, 13 cases were identified which is a major increase from the 4 cases of the previous periods.

Flying UAS around wildfires or other emergency situations makes it harder for first responders to protect communities in danger.

Recommendations from AMA to FAA

In order to accurately portray what is happening in the airspace, the AMA suggests a few improvements:

  1. Analysis of the data should be released prior to publication.
  2. Investigative findings should be joined to the data in order to avoid any unnecessary speculation.
  3. Better communication and coordination with local law enforcement should be implemented to ensure that sightings are properly investigated.

Safely integrating unmanned aircrafts into the national airspace system is one of the FAA’s top priorities given their undeniable increasing presence in our lives.

Fly safe!