A passenger jet on approach to London’s Heathrow airport was at “serious risk of collision” with a drone, with potentially catastrophic effects, according an official report to be published this week, in the first such incident reported at one of the world’s key aviation hubs.
The near miss, which happened on a clear day in July, when the plane was descending at about 200 metres altitude, is just the latest in a growing number of close calls involving remotely operated unmanned aerial vehicles. In another case this summer, for example, a Porter Airlines flight out of Toronto was approaching Dulles Airport in Washington at 850 metres when the pilot saw a black and silver drone pass within 15 metres.
It also highlights the urgency that has grown around the efforts to create, expand and adapt regulations to handle the spike in untrained pilots controlling ever more sophisticated drones, a political dynamic in which Canada has excelled. The United States, especially, is “extremely behind,” according to one Canadian aviation lawyer.
It is clear we have a serious potential safety problem which could cause a serious threat to life
U.S. pilots have reported a spike in close calls with drones, with 25 incidents since June, often at take-off or landing, and frequently near major centres like New York or Washington. Many were forced to make evasive manoeuvres. The U.K. Sunday Times likewise reported this weekend that Britain saw four similar close-call incidents this year, and in all but one case the drones could not be traced to their owners.
In July, pilots flying in and out of Toronto’s Pearson airport diverted because of several drone sightings. Police were dispatched, according to an incident report, but did not make any arrests. A similar incident also happened this summer in Vancouver.
In dramatic footage obtained by the Sunday Times in London, from a different incident, a passenger jet is seen passing within a few metres of a drone. The footage, taken with the drone’s camera, shifts abruptly as the plane passes, as if the drone was buffeted by the draft.
The near misses come as governments grapple with the problem of regulating drones amid a massive boom in their popularity, not just among amateur enthusiasts, but also corporations keen to put them to use in business, with proposed applications spanning everything from pipeline or cattle inspection and crop dusting to the LobsterCopter and BurritoBomber in food delivery.
Drones are small, cheap and easy to use, but their dangers to passenger jets are obvious. If striking a flock of Canada geese can force a passenger jet pilot to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan, as it did in 2009, then drones of similar size could do similar damage, especially if they were to be “ingested,” as the lingo has it, into a plane’s engine. A strike of the cockpit or any window could be similarly devastating, either by injuring the pilots or depressurizing the cabin.
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“Any interference with an aircraft period, especially an intake into a jet’s engines, is a significant problem,” said William Clark, an aviation law specialist in Toronto.
“Canada is miles ahead of other jurisdictions in regards to regulation of commercial-use drones,” he said. Its progress is thanks largely to the recent issue of guidelines for the use of smaller drones, subject to fines as high as $5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a corporation. These include the requirement of visual contact, and various restrictions on where and how high they may be flown.
The rules are still “fairly restrictive,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s a long way from where we’re going to be very quickly on commercial use of drones.”
Photographer Raphael Pirker is the founder of Team BlackSheep — a group that uses drones to record first-person-view videos
Operators used to have to apply for special licences, the same kind that are used, for example, when industrial contractors use helicopters to put air conditioners on building roofs. But the increase in requests — which rose 500% from 2012 to 2013 — meant this was no longer feasible.
Already, drones are in wide use by photographers, media, police and farmers. GoPro, which makes a popular line of sport cameras, is set to launch its own line of affordable drones for amateur pilots next year, each equipped with a camera.
This raises another worry, which has been addressed in detail by Canada’s privacy commissioner, of remote surveillance without consent. As Mr. Clark put it, the joke among industry watchers is: “My Uncle Perv wants one.”
“That’s the kind of misuse we’re going to see,” he said.
Britain, like Canada, requires drone operators to have “direct, unaided visual contact” at all times, and forbids flying over airfields or areas with lots of people. It is also studying the practicality of built-in “geo-fencing,” a GPS-based program that prevents drones from going to certain designated areas.
In the U.S. last month, the National Transportation Safety Board reinstated a case brought by the Federal Aviation Administration against Raphael Pirker, a photographer, for the allegedly “careless or reckless” use of an unmanned aircraft, which he flew around the University of Virginia, in some cases so low that pedestrians had to leap out of the way, and through a “tunnel containing moving vehicles.” He now faces a $10,000 penalty.
In response to this case and others, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has vowed to bring in legislation to “codify and expand” regulations on the use of drones.
“It is clear we have a serious potential safety problem which could cause a serious threat to life,” Ms. Feinstein wrote, according to The Washington Post. “Yet, very few of these incidents resulted in FAA enforcement actions, according to reports, even though the drones’ operations appear to have been plainly illegal.”
This is easier said than done, though, and recently proposed regulations requiring drone operators to have pilots licences and hours of experience have been criticized as unworkable.
“Given that it took half a decade for the FAA to come up with such sweeping and conservative rules, however, chances are it will be a while before the agency comes up with anything more nuanced,” wrote Brian Fung of The Washington Post.