The need to control the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by amateurs and hobbyists has increased in urgency after a drone-strike was reported by a plane landing at London’s Heathrow airport.
The incident comes after a string of near misses registered by the UK Airprox Board at airports in the UK over the past year."Frankly it was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don't understand the risks and the rules," said SteveLandells, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa).
Although rules by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) require drone operators to stay clear of airports, planes and helicopters, there is currently little that can be done to enforce the rules. Small hobbyist drones don’t require registration and their operators are not trained or subject to licences. As a result, the culprit of the Sunday incident, which put the lives of more than 130 people aboard the British Airways-operated Airbus A320 at risk, is unlikely to ever be found.
"There isn't any chance of catching the pilot because drones do not have to be registered,” said Justin Pringle, chief technology officer at Newcastle-based firm Drone Operations.
"It's an untraceable event. There doesn't have to be any registration on the drone, there's nothing that tells you where you got it from and ultimately someone has got one of these things and abused it."
The plane was returning from Geneva and does not appear to have been damaged during the accident: it was cleared for its subsequent flight after inspection by engineers. However, experts said that not every drone strike may prove as harmless as this one. One of the scenarios considered by flight safety experts is a situation when a drone gets sucked into a jet’s engine.
In January 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 performed an emergency landing on the river Hudson in New York after losing thrust on both engines after colliding with a flock of geese. The fact that no lives were lost in that accident was described as almost a miracle. It is believed that a drone could cause similar damage to the engines as the birds.
“People who fly drones in controlled airspace are potentially putting lives in danger and should be subject to the strongest possible sanctions available under the law,” said James Stamp, global head of aviation at KPMG.
“A number of practical steps should be taken, including requiring drones to be registered, tougher penalties for irresponsible behaviour and technology-based solutions that will prevent the drones entering restricted airspace in the first place.”
Stamp also called for more research to be done into the potential impact of drone collisions.
Scotland Yard and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch are now investigating the incident, which took place at 12.50pm on Sunday afternoon.
The CAA drone guidelines state that the vehicles can only be flown at the maximum altitude of 120m and at least 50m away from people, vehicles and buildings. However, experts agree that there is nothing to ensure that those who buy drones for entertainment familiarise themselves with the rules.
"In the vast majority of cases people are ignorant of the rules,” said Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry, national lead on drones for the National Police Chiefs' Council. “We want people to understand what the regulations say. There is a social responsibility to not hurt people."
Transport Minister Robert Goodwill said that ministers are looking at the possibility of introducing a drone registration scheme in the UK, similar to the ones already in place in Ireland and the US.
The Department for Transport has confirmed it is also talking to manufacturers about introducing so-called geo-fencing technology in their drones that would restrict where civilian drones can fly.