Last updated: 01:33 PM ET, Fri January 29 2016

Could Stricter Drone Laws Be Coming To The UK?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 29, 2016

Could Stricter Drone Laws Be Coming To The UK?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Investigators in the UK have revealed that they had to look into a high number of incidents of drones flying too near to airports over the past year. This included four times where unmanned crafts nearly collided with airplanes. These are known as “Category A” incidents where pilots saw a real danger of collision. Two of the reported near-crashes occurred in London, one at Heathrow and one at Stansted. In both cases the drones were “within a wingspan” of commercial airliners. 

Tip of the iceberg

In 2015, there were 30 confirmed drone sightings in British flight paths. That is up from six sightings in 2014. According to the Guardian, pilots in Great Britain have said that the number of confirmed incidents is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Steve Landells, a safety expert for the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), told the paper: “The reports that UK Airprox gets are the ones that are seen. But when you’re flying at more than 100mph, the chances of seeing a typical, 18-inch wide drone are small. We don’t know if this is the tip of the iceberg. With the massive increase in drone sales, we fear we might see a dramatic rise in close calls.”  

Though many drones are quite small, they have hard components and potentially explosive or flammable parts. Some aviation safety groups have even started to call for testing to see what would happen if a drone collided with a commercial jet (the same way that bird strikes have been studied in the past). 

READ MORE: Drone Crashes At US Open During Match

Stricter laws needed

The aforementioned Category A incidents came in 2015. At that time, BALPA was already actively trying to get stricter laws to govern the use of drones in urban areas. The association even conducted its own survey, which found that a majority of Britons favor stricter rules and universal licensure for drone operators, regardless of whether for commercial or recreational purposes. Currently, drone operators who want to use their crafts for commercial purposes in the UK have to go to a two-day training and then pass a flight test before they are allowed to fly. A third of the respondents to the BALPA survey said that even this amount of training was not enough and that drone licenses for urban areas should only be granted to those who received the same amount of training as pilots of manned aircraft.  

One of the main problems is that it is difficult to track drones. Even though there are laws governing drone flights near airports and in commercial flight paths, there is currently no way to track the unmanned fliers back to their pilots. This means that operators who fly in restricted areas are almost always able to escape detection and, therefore, avoid punishment. 

READ MORE: How Will FAA Drone Registration Work?

Changes expected

In the U.S., drones cannot fly within five miles of commercial airports without prior authorization. This rule has been in place for a year and a half. Like in the UK, however, catching offenders is difficult.    

The FAA does now require any drones over 0.55 lbs be registered. People who do not register face fines and jail time if they fly (and get caught). Registration can be done online. Some have criticized this move by the FAA, saying that it punishes the law-abiding majority of drone operators for the transgressions of a few individuals.    

The regulation of drones is still evolving. Safety issues around airports should be an easy fix if authorities can find a way to track drones back to their owners so that they can be caught if they break into no-fly zones. Hopefully, this can be done before a catastrophe occurs. 

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