Heathrow Apt/London, UNITED KINGDOM: (FILES) A British Airways aircraft taxis across the runway at Heathrow Airport, in west London, 29 January 2007. British Airways said on Friday 18 May 2007 that net profit dropped by more than a third in 2006-07 owing to charges arising from the part sale of its subsidiary airline BA Connect. Net profit fell by 35.7 percent on a 12-month comparison to 290 million pounds (425 million euros, 573 million dollars) in the year to March 31, BA said in a statement. BA also announced that it had ordered eight new Airbus A320 family aircraft for delivery in 2008-2010. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS/FILES (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Drone apparently crashes into plane at Heathrow airport
02:24 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Near misses involving planes and drones are increasing

Geoffrey Thomas says a fatal accident is inevitable

Technology can prevent drones from being flown into hazardous areas

CNN  — 

Editor’s note: Geoffrey Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of AirlineRatings.com. The opinions expressed here are solely his.

It now seems inevitable that a tragic accident involving a commercial plane with hundreds aboard and a drone is only a matter of time.

The numbers are troubling with the British Airways encounter Sunday just the tip of the iceberg.

Officials: Drone apparently slams into plane

Last year, in the United Kingdom alone there was a quadrupling of near misses to 23 in the six month period from April to October with 12 labeled as a serious risk of collision, according to the U.K.’s Airprox Board.

In a five-month period ending January 31 this year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reported that there were 583 near misses between drones and planes, more than triple the number in 2014.

The U.S. Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College tempers the FAA report saying there is some duplication but it agrees a number of 519, of which 188 or 36.2% were close encounters.

Again, they are troubling numbers as it appears that drone users are ignoring the globally accepted rules of not operating above 400 feet and not within five miles of an airport.

The Center’s report on the FAA numbers said that “three out of five incidents occurred within five miles of an airport, and nine out of 10 incidents occurred above 400 feet.”

And in 24 incidents, drones came within 50 feet of a manned aircraft, and in 11 cases the pilots of the aircraft made evasive maneuvers to avoid a drone.

According to the data, 91.9% of the incidents occurred above 400 feet with the average altitude 3,074 feet.

A tiny drone that carries humans?

Disturbing trend

While these numbers are disturbing they are only going to get worse as drone sales soar on the back of lower purchase costs and greater capability.

Non-military drones are typically capable of altitudes of up to 6,000 feet and speeds of 50 miles per hour (mph) and they are selling in the hundreds of thousands.

The U.S. is one of the few countries that requires registration at a cost of $5 — and 400,000 have been registered on a new FAA site launched last December.

The UK and Australia do not require registration, although both countries have the same basic rules of banning flying at altitude of above 400 feet and not within five miles and an airport.

Regulators concede they have been slow to act and some privately admit the situation is almost out of control.

While regulators around the world are grappling with the new drone phenomena, responsible manufactures such as China’s DJI have introduced geofencing technology into its drones to prevent them being flown into hazardous areas.

Chinese firm DJI leads new ‘drone age’

DJI also has a feature Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) which provides drone users with up-to-date guidance on locations where flights may be restricted by regulations or raised safety or security concerns.

This could include forest fires, major stadium events, and VIP travel.

While this works well for the responsible operator hacks are already available online to work around the restrictions for those who flout the rules.

And that is the problem without global mandatory registration for owners and severe penalties the irresponsible operator will continue to pose a serious threat to aviation.

More and more we are seeing these drones being operated around major airports.

At New York’s JFK airport in January a Jetblue A320 pilot reported a near miss with a drone at about 6000ft, while a Southwest 737 pilot reported one passing just below his aircraft as it came into land at Baltimore.

In September last year a drone came within 60 feet of a 70-seat EMB170 jet in the skies above the British Houses of Parliament.

Last month the captain of a Lufthansa A380 super jumbo reported that a drone nearly collided with his aircraft as it approached Los Angeles airport. According to the FAA the encounter occurred at 5,000 feet and the drone came within 200 feet.

With air travel set to double over the next 20 years and drones sales climbing by 30% a year, tragic conflicts with reckless operators are inevitable.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.