News and Commentary. “Drones in near-misses with planes almost once a week as pilots warn of ‘unacceptably high’ crash risk” screams a recent article in the Telegraph. The article claims that a recent Freedom of Information (FOIA) request indicates that there have been 49 “proximity reports” since April. “Unless action is taken,” continues the article, “BALPA [British Airline Pilots Association] believes the risk of collision is unacceptably high.”
What the article doesn’t say is what a “proximity report” really means, what standards the pilots are using to assess “risk of collision” and what exactly is meant by an incident where “the safety of the aircraft may have been compromised.” How is the data gathered? Who verifies reports? Where is this database of incidents stored? Were any of the incidents investigated afterwards? The figures do not seem to represent a scientific study, to say the least.
It’s possible that many of the reported incidents might be as false as the rumored near death experience of a British pilot a few weeks ago. Last month, headlines across the globe picked up the story of a dangerous near miss between a drone and a British Airways passenger jet. Exaggeration was rampant – reporters and lawmakers clamored for heavier regulation to prevent the next imminent disaster from occurring. A few days later – after careful review of the incident showed a complete lack of any damage or marking whatsoever to the airplane – the rogue drone was determined to probably have been a rogue plastic shopping bag. Evidence for stricter recycling laws – yes. Evidence for stricter drone regulations – no.
But the damage has been done. In the Queen’s speech delivered last week, she announced that the U.K. would introduce new drone regulations as part of a “Modern Transport Bill.” The U.K. already has drone regulations in place: commercial drone operators must get the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority, which includes an “assessment” from an independent testing agency. The CAA’s website says that the typical process includes:
1-3 days of classroom lessons and exercises
a written theory test
a flight assessment
[Pilot to] develop their own operations manual
practice aircraft operation/flying skills for the practical flight assessment.
That’s before you can apply for permission, which is good for a year and must be renewed annually. So far, about 1700 operators have been able to receive permissions.
The regulations that are in place are comprehensive, to say the least. Other drone regulations mimic those in place in the U.S.; recreational drones are required already to stay away from people, vehicles, and structures, and to fly below 400 feet. As in the U.S., planes near airports aren’t due to a lack of regulation – they are due to the ignorance of some drone operators.
It’s hard to see how stricter drone regulations will help with a perceived crash risk. It may be that it’s time for stricter media regulations on accurate reporting.