New Equipment Allows Planes to “See” Drone

Thousands of drone sightings have been reported by commercial pilots, not just near airports, but at high altitudes.  The pilots often catch a quick glimpse as they buzz by them at speeds up to 285 MPH.  The dangers of drones flying above 400 have been highlighted by countless media articles.  Most recently, an Army Blackhawk Helicopter was damaged when it struck a drone over Long Island.

Lehigh Valley Drone recently outfitted one of our drones with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) transponder which will allow other aircraft with ADS-B capability to see the drone’s position inside the cockpit and help avoid any possible conflict with nearby traffic.

The FAA has mandated that all manned aircraft have ADS-B transponders equipped by Jan 1st, 2020.  There is no requirement for unmanned aircraft to have a transponder.  However, LVD feels that this additional safety capability is essential while operating near a busy airport like LVIA.

Air traffic control towers are also equipped with ADS-B receiving capabilities.  Currently, some facilities have filters set to limit the altitude which is displayed on the controller’s screen.  In the near future, the filters can be adjusted to allow the controllers to also see drone traffic in the area and they can re-route other aircraft around.

The 2020i ADS-B transponder from Uavionix is a very light unit and about the size of  a quarter.  It runs off of an external 3S Lipo battery and retails for $2,000.

While the cost of the transponder rivals that of the drone itself, having this capability will help drone pilots give the FAA a reasonable argument to allow them to operate in close proximity to airports without concern for collision between manned and unmanned aircraft.

LVD also had help from the Northampton County Community College’s fabrication lab or FAB LAB as they call it.  We went to them with a problem to figure out.  Simply fit the transponder onto the drone body in a way that it will work and not get in the way of the propellers or the camera.  That doesn’t leave much room, but they were able to 3-D print a prototype and eventually a completed mounting system that allows the transponder to quickly clip on and off, while still being secure enough to stay attached while in flight.

Any Aircraft with an ADS-B receiver will be able to see the transponder if they are within approximately 20 miles.  The photo to the left shows the transponder being picked up on the Foreflight app when we were flying over a Lafayette College football game.  The drone is broadcasting a call-sign “LVDRONE1”.  There is another aircraft to the southeast flying away from the drone, so there is no conflict and pilot awareness is increased for both the manned aircraft and the remote pilot.

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