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Balancing drone risk and regulation

Thinkpiece

Publication date:

29 April 2016

Last updated:

18 September 2019

Author(s):

Laurence Baxter, Policy and Public Affairs

A perspective of the various aspects of drone risk and regulation, in the context of a near-miss with a BA flight.

On Sunday 17 April 2016, a British Airways flight approaching Heathrow was struck by something at about 1,700 feet, and the crew reported that it may have been a drone. Fortunately there was no injury or damage, and the jet was cleared to make its next flight. Amid the flurry of media coverage over the week that followed, Transport Minister Robert Goodwill told a House of Lords Committee that the object was "not confirmed as a drone and "there's indeed speculation that it may have been a plastic bag or something". Does this resolve the debate? Far from it.

First, the number of drones has increased: over a million new drones sold around the world every year, and tens of thousands in the sky over the UK right now. Second, so has the number of near-misses with other airspace users: 31 confirmed in 2015, of which 19 involved commercial air traffic; compared to just four the year before.

Third, the fact that the crew of BA727 could not actually confirm what had hit them should come as no surprise, and the number of near-misses might actually be much higher. Many drones are too small to detect on radar, and are very difficult to spot from an airliner cockpit.  Fourth:  many modern recreational drones have capabilities that are often beyond the capacity of the actual users.

Finally, nobody is really certain what would happen if a drone hit an aircraft, including the risk to flight-critical elements such as its engines, control surfaces, windscreen, and vital flight sensors; not to mention the danger to smaller aircraft or helicopters. There needs to be empirical testing.

These five facts illustrate the risks drones can potentially pose to other airspace users. These risks could also manifest themselves in different ways: experts also know that air crashes often (not always) occur from a combination of failures that, in themselves may have been benign, happen to combine to create an awful outcome.

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