Drone safety is a top priority of federal research, and it ranks high in the categories of tests and trials at FAA UAV test sites. Many topics and subjects in commercial drone courses focus on drone safety and the potential interactions with populations and manned aircraft. The potential for engagement between drones and hot air balloons is more than an idle notion. According to many experienced hot air pilots and operators, it has happened on numerous occasions and in many locations. However, until recently, there had not been a formally reported case.
Hot air balloons are a scenic fixture in many parts of the country and an exciting oddity in most other areas. For example, New Mexico is famous for its annual hot air balloon festival in which hundreds of lighter than aircraft participate. For pilots and passengers in hot air balloons, the prospect of encountering a drone is daunting. Drones are large enough and have blades sharp enough to do some damage to the skin of a hot air balloon. Further, a scenario in which a drone might strike the fuel tanks of a hot air balloon seems problematic.
Drone Meets Hot Air Balloon
On August 10, 2018, a balloon operator sailed her craft over Teton Valley, Idaho. The craft floated over the beautiful Teton foothills until their placid journey was suddenly interrupted by a collision with a drone. Not only occurring once, the drone repeatedly banged into the outer membrane of the balloon. The tough fabric resisted the blades, and ultimately the blades were so damaged that the drone fell out of the sky. It was a remarkable eye-witnessed encounter between a balloon and a drone.
Later events revealed an inexperienced drone operator, operating in a restricted zone of airspace, and without direct sight of the machine. Because of the witnesses and video of the scene, the balloon operator reported the event to the NTSB. No criminal activity occurred, but the NTSB drone operator cooperated fully with the investigation.
Drone safety research at FAA UAV test sites focus on public safety, and interactions with manned aircraft is a major risk associated with drone operations. Holders of pilot licenses and students that completed commercial drone courses place a high priority on compliance with the rules that restrict NAS usage and getting required permissions.
The FAA uses a clear and visible system to warn pilots about restrictions on airspace and other notices that need prompt attention from UAV pilots and others that use the public airspace. The Temporary Flight Restriction system provides notice to pilots to avoid flying in certain areas during a specific period. The FAA can issue TFRs on short notice, and they can correspond to events that involve hot air balloons such as the Albuquerque hot air balloon festival.
Restrictions in airspace usage can occur due to planned and unplanned events. The NOTAMs are another system to warn pilots of the need for caution. NOTAMS are pieces of information that address some abnormality in the National Air Space. These advisories help when other means are not fast enough to communicate the information. NOTAMS affect every user of the NAS.
Flying Near Balloons
Hot air balloons are manned aircraft under FAA rules. The obligation of UAV pilots and operators is to yield to manned aircraft. Pilots should not operate a UAV in any manner that poses a risk of collision with a manned aircraft. Trained pilots know that they may not fly near, above, below unless well clear. The UAV must not in any way create a risk of collision with a hot air balloon.