You’ve probably seen in the news that a drone collided with a plane outside of Heathrow airport, London. Understandably, it’s a big story that has attracted plenty of attention. But it’s fair to say that the world’s media, and indeed some senior figures in governments and police departments, have reacted disproportionately, with many suggesting that it’s high time for regulatory bodies to take further action against drone pilots.
In all seriousness, we probably need to gain a little perspective on this issue. First of all, while there is absolutely no doubt that the incident was the result of reckless flying by one individual pilot, the crash did occur over Richmond Park, almost 8 miles away from Heathrow airport. This wasn’t a case of an idiot flying a drone the road from one of the world’s busiest air traffic centres. However, it was the case that the drone pilot in question was flying well above the legal UK limit of 400ft – as high as 1700ft, if reports are to be believed.
Second, exactly how dangerous drones are to commercial airliners is yet to be fully determined. As much as the wider media have labelled the incident as a ‘collision’, proportionally it’s as much a mid-air ‘collision’ as the last time I walked into a mosquito. The plane was immediately cleared for its next flight after a brief inspection. Ironically, had it been an EasyJet plane, it would have been inspected by a drone. Having said that, there are of course still risks involved – You’ll remember that back in 2009, an Airbus A320 (incidentally the same model hit by the drone on Saturday) had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes resulted in a double engine failure.
A Mercatus study by Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond last month took a closer look at the risks that drones pose to commercial aircraft. Using data from past bird strikes to assess how the likelihood that drones might crash into planes and how much damage they might cause, the pair estimated that a fatal collision between a plane and a drone will occur once every 187 million years. If past accidents are anything to go by, it would appear as though swarms of drones would be required to genuinely bring down an aircraft. That’s certainly unlikely to happen (legally) any time soon, so maybe planes are fine, for now.
The best thing that regulatory bodies and pilots can hope for is that manufacturers start incorporating software features that restrict illegal flights. DJI has already taken steps to do this, perhaps as a positive gesture towards officials at the FAA and other national aviation authorities. Geofencing could be a real opportunity for the public to be convinced that drones can be used safely. Yes, it’s a bit like buying a Ferrari and having its speed limited to 60mph, but for the UAV industry to truly take off, incidents like the one in London, and other near misses that are frequently reported, must be cut out.
Currently DJI’s Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) provides drone pilots with real-time information on where they cannot fly, such as the airspace over airports, major sporting events or prisons. By default, its drones should not take off in or fly into these areas. The company has been making proactive steps since releasing an update setting up a no-fly zone over the White House last year, one week after a drone crash landed on its lawn. 3DR have made similar moves with regards to geofencing, but there are two obvious issues here. The first is that geofencing is in no way being applied across the board by all manufacturers. And the second is that DJI users, for example, have the power to temporarily self-authorize their flights in no-fly zones.
Until enforced geofencing comes as standard, limiting both the altitude drones can reach and where they can reach it, it’s likely that we will see more controversial incidents involving planes and drones in the future. The whole industry will suffer as a result.