The Danger of Sharing the Skies: Drones and Planes

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has deregulated drone use. The new regulations are designed to reduce cost and cut the red tape around operating drones in Australia, but many pilots and air traffic controllers worry that these relaxed regulations could lead to disastrous mid-air collisions.

The changes went into effect in October, which included eliminating the $1,400 fees charged to commercial drone operators and allowing landowners to operate drones up to 25 kilograms on their own property without a permit. Aviation special counsel for Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Joseph Wheeler, said the move towards deregulation would significantly increase the risk of a crash with a drone.

CASA has admitted that it doesn’t “have people going out there looking for drone.” A spokesperson said CASA simply does not have the resources to investigate drone pilots breaking the law. But experts have warned that drone use in Australia has already become more dangerous with amateur pilots unaware of or disregarding existing laws.

This is the intersection where airplane pilots fear the worst outcomes will result.

There have been no studies done on drone impacts.

Drone proponents have argued that there is a wealth of information and research done on the effect of birds colliding with airplanes and that we should be able to reasonably assume that a drone roughly the size of a bird should pose no greater threat, but this reasoning does not take into account mitigating factors or criminal intentions.

Steven Landells, flight safety specialist for the British Airline Pilots Association said, “There is currently a lot of scenario modelling happening to look in more detail at the severity of these impacts. The amount of damage caused depends on factors such as the size, direction of travel and speed of the drone, and the location of the collision.” He states that while there was a lot of data on the effects of bird strikes, specific drone research was needed because, “birds don’t have a big lump of lithium battery in them.”

Landells did state that there was one thing we know about drone strike. He said, “If one of those goes down an engine, it’ll stop the engine, there’s very little doubt about that. And as the drones get bigger and more capable, the potential if there is a mid-air collision is a lot worse.”

Australian Federation of Air Pilots’ president, David Booth, said that drones have the potential to cause a large amount of damage if one strikes a helicopter’s tail rotor or flies into a plane’s engine. “Birds are soft, they might destroy the engine, but with a drone there is the potential of impact fire and they’re reinforced with Kevlar composite. Two kilos at 250 kilometres an hour or potentially 400 kilometres an hour – there’s a lot of energy in that impact,” he said.

Drone strikes are no longer in theoretical territory.

In April, it finally happened – a drone collided with a plane that was landing at Heathrow Airport in London, England. The plane was carrying 132 passengers as well as five crewmembers when the pilot reported that the aircraft was struck by an “unmanned object” shortly before landing on the tarmac.

Fortunately, the airplane landed safely and was later cleared for its next flight, but impact with a drone could potentially be as catastrophic as uncontrolled engine failure or a shattered cockpit windshield.

This year, the Telegraph reported that the number of near collisions between airplanes and drones has quadrupled in just a year. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority records over 100 reports of near misses with drones every month. One drone was seen flying over the Los Angeles Airport at 8,000 feet, which is over 7,000 feet higher than drone regulations currently allow and creeps into cruising altitude for commercial airliners. At the fifth busiest airport in the world, Istanbul Airport, there is a claim that a drone was found with a geo-fenced area – meaning a space that should have been protected from drones entering it. Even the White House – another no-fly zone for drones – has had drones land on the lawn.

Drone incidents at airports are not just restricted to the UK and US either. There is a report of a drone that came within 50 meters of striking a rescue helicopter on the Gold Coast in Australia. In France, an Airbus just narrowly avoided hitting a drone while landing at the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in the same month that a drone struck the plane landing at Heathrow. The pilot disengaged autopilot and performed an evasive manoeuvre so that the drone passed five meters below the wing.

This is the first incident of its kind, but it seems unlikely that it is the last. Only time will tell if regulations can catch up to the reality of a world filled with drones.  

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