The impact of drones at airports in the UK
The risk of drones impacting airports and flights around the UK is growing. Electrical store Maplin alone reported sales of more than 15,000 drones in the UK in 2015. As drone sales increase so too does the risk of drones affecting flight paths and planes across Britain.
After a British Airways plane was almost hit by a drone, Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye called on the government to tighten laws around drone usage.
Airports increasingly concerned about drones
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, a police investigation is ongoing after a drone crashed into a British Airways jet over Heathrow. Carrying 132 passengers and 5 crew, the pilot of the BA727 flight from Geneva told police that the front of the aircraft had been struck by an unmanned object shortly before it landed. The aircraft landed and was cleared for its next flight, but with a series of near misses in the UK recently, there is an increasing worry over drones hitting and obstructing planes.
The number of near misses involving aircraft has quadrupled in the last year. According to the UK Airprox Board (UKAB), there were 23 near misses between April and October last year. 12 of these near misses were given an A rating – meaning there was “a serious risk of collision”.
Near misses include reports that on:
1) December 6, 2015 – A drone passed over a Embraer ERJ170 by 100ft on its approach to London City Airport – A following plane changed its landing pattern when the incident was flagged
2) 28 November, 2015 – An A321 plane narrowly missed a drone at 100ft above a Gatwick Airport runway
3) 28 November, 2015 – An Airbus 319 above Richmond Park spotted a drone flying rapidly between 400 and 900ft below the plane
4) October 13, 2015 – The crew of an Airbus 380 reported seeing a 2m large drone taking evasive action after it was viewed approx. 70m away climbing 2,000ft after departing Heathrow
5) October 4, 2015 – The pilot of a Boeing 777 identified a possible drone pass close by the aircraft while landing at Heathrow Airport, no risk assessment was made
6) 30 September, 2015 – A drone helicopter was within 30ft of the cockpit of an A319 on its way to Heathrow
7) 22 September, 2015 – A drone missed the right side of a B77 by approx. 25m at 2,000ft after departing Heathrow Airport
8) 13 September, 2015 – A drone missed an E170 by approx. 20m as the plane approached London City Airport
9) 13 September, 2015 – A drone flew over a B737 at 4,000ft, missing the aircraft by approx. 5m, after departing Stansted Airport
10) 27 August, 2015 – A drone flew within 50ft of a DO328 as it approached Manchester Airport at 2,800ft
11) August 12, 2015 – A drone was spotted beneath an Airbus 310 as it approached Heathrow Airport
Labour has accused ministers of dragging their feet after aviation authorities confirmed these potentially serious near misses. The Department for Transport (DfT) stated:
“The government is leading efforts with international bodies to develop a stringent regulatory framework focusing on safety and a working group is looking at the issue.”
However, Labour noted that a working group was established in 2013. The shadow aviation minister, Richard Burden said:
“Yesterday’s drone collision with a plane sadly comes as no surprise and we should be thankful that the pilot was able to land the plane safely. For months we have seen a rising number of near misses and Labour has consistently urged the government to wake up to the problem.
“We know drones pose a very real threat to public safety and we should learn the lessons from places like the US which have been quick to introduce a registration process.
“We need action but we are still yet to see even a consultation on the options. This now must happen as soon as possible.”
While concerns are growing over the use of drones near airports around the UK, it is important to note that in the US, in just 6 months, nearly 600 unmanned aerial vehicles drifted too close to aircraft.
Drone Laws in the UK
Drones weighing less than 20kg are permitted to be flown for leisure no more than 400ft in the air or closer than 50m to people, buildings or airports. Operators do not need to contact the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for permission if they are operating for fun, providing the UAV remains within the line of sight of the pilot and follows the other restrictions. Any drone flight beyond these requirements must get CAA approval.
Until recently, drones were lumped in with small unmanned aerial vehicles according to the CAA. However a dronecode now exists and here are the basics:
Keep your drone within your line of sight and at a maximum height of 400ft (122m)
Always fly your drone well away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
If fitted with a camera, a drone must be flown at least 50m away from any persons, vehicles, buildings or structures not owned or controlled by the pilot
Camera-equipped drones must not be flown within 150m of a congested area or large group of people, such as a sporting event or concert
The key rule in all of this is height. Recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight is a criminal offence in the UK, and anyone convicted can face prison time.
The Future of Drones in the UK
According to the House of Lords EU Committee, Europe could become the centre for drone innovation by 2050 if properly legislated and an industry based on this technology has the potential to provide 150,000 extra jobs by 2050. While the committee recommends commercial drone pilots be required to have third-party liability insurance, when it comes to the operation of drones by the media, they recommended further consultation with the public. The committee also addressed the use of drones as a delivery service such as those touted by Amazon and Google by stating that they did not think such a service would be safe now but that it welcomes research and development into making drone deliveries possible one day. Though even those in the business do not believe drone delivery will become a mass-consumer reality for at least another 5 years.
But all of this just means that we are facing a future of more and more drones, which means more and more problems to face for airports around the UK. It’s not known yet what solutions will help solve the issue but a number of solutions are currently in the works around the world. NASA in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with various universities and companies, including Google and Verizon to design an air-traffic control system specifically for drones. This system would have its own equivalent of roads, traffic lights and do not enter signs. Other researchers are working on technology to help drones sense and avoid obstacles in their paths.