Think before you buy that drone this holiday season


One gift appears to be on every holiday commercial, store flier and wish list this year: drones.

And while it seems like drones could make our world a better, more tech-savvy place, make sure you consider the consequences.

As a member of the University of Michigan Survival Flight team, I know firsthand the danger drones can cause.

Minutes and seconds matter in our line of work.

For example, imagine you’ve been seriously injured in a car accident and need to be air lifted to our hospital. Our team is dispatched to help you, but as we prepare to take off, we see a small drone flying over our helipad.

The drone could hit one of our helicopter blades or break through one of our helicopter windows causing even more injuries. Meanwhile, emergency personnel are helping stabilize you at the scene expecting us to arrive any minute to care for your life-threatening injuries.

But we can’t take off.

We watch from the helipad as the drone continues to hover and its operator is nowhere in sight.

It’s a serious and real emergency scenario air medical transport programs are dealing with each day as drones become more popular among the general public.

In fact, personal operation of drones is becoming such an issue that the U.S. Department of Transportation met last month to discuss the need for requirements, including marking and tracking, of unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also taken steps towards regulation.

Effective Monday, Dec. 21, a new federal law will require all drones to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) registry. If drone operators do not comply, they are subject to civil and criminal penalties.

However, the above law simply mandates a drone owner registers their aircraft. It does not give specific laws around safe drone operation.

In February 2015, the FAA released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small, unmanned aircraft. Essentially, it’s a public notice issued by law that does not change any current guidelines or regulations, but allows for public comment and starts the rulemaking process. No final rule has been implemented yet, but the hope is this would be turned into a law that covers safety and operation requirements.

They also designed a public education campaign, Know Before You Fly, to help educate the public on safe and responsible ways to operate unmanned aircraft.

The campaign highlights several safety guidelines for operation of unmanned aircraft under Section 336 of Public Law 112-95.

Some of those guidelines include keeping the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times and remaining well clear of manned aircraft operations.

Yet, with no official law in place, we still have incidents where drones interfere with our line of work.

Just recently, a personal drone landed on our helipad and created a major safety issue. Would it hit one of our aircraft while preparing to take off again? Are we going to be dispatched any second to help a patient while it’s still in the way? Where did it come from?

We had to wait for the drone to finally fly away while counting our lucky stars that we weren’t dispatched in the meantime.

These are issues we and our fellow air medical transport programs will continue to deal with until federal operation rules are enacted into law and drone operators learn to comply.

Fellow members of the U-M Survival Flight and team and I ask you to know the rules before operating your new holiday gift this year. Register your drone and be mindful of safety guidelines when operating.

Drones can be a danger to our pilots, a danger to our crew, and most importantly, a danger to our patients. Don’t make us be the Grinch this holiday season.

Take the next steps:

  • Learn more about the FAA’s public education campaign, Know Before You Fly.
  • Register your drone.
  • Check out more facts about our U-M Survival Flight team.



Survival Flight logo

For 30 years, the U-M Survival Flight program has provided air medical services to patients in need of critical care in the air, and transported organs for transplant. Its three helicopters and jet have flown more than 4.5 million miles, logging more than 1,330 missions a year in cooperation with Metro Aviation. With bases in Ann Arbor and Livingston County, and partnerships with Saint Joseph Mercy and Sparrow Health Systems, Survival Flight is recognized as one of the nation’s finest air medical services.


U of M Health logo
For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.