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Drone strikes a British airliner in the UK

Issue: 06-2016By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By British Airways

On April 17 this year, a British Airways Airbus A320 from Geneva, with 137 passengers and crew on board, was struck by a suspected drone while it was landing at Heathrow airport. After landing, the pilot reported an object — believed to be a drone that struck the front of the plane. If confirmed, it’s thought it would be the first such incident in the UK, the BBC reported. A British Airways spokesperson said, “Our aircraft landed safely, was fully examined by our engineers and it was cleared to operate its next flight”. A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said it was “totally unacceptable” to fly drones close to airports. It is a punishable offence which could attract up to five years in prison in the UK.

The incident of April 17, 2016, is reported to have been the first episode of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly referred to as a drone, colliding with a civil airliner operating a scheduled flight with full load of passengers in the daytime in the UK. Mercifully, the airliner did not crash. There have however been a number of other close calls in the UK. In July last year, there was a near miss as a drone came within six metres of an Airbus A320 passenger jet approaching Heathrow airport and was descending through 1,700 feet. As per the Civil Aviation Authority of the UK, there have been six similar incidents in the period May 2014 to March 2015 at airports around the UK in which drones came dangerously close to manned aircraft.

Across the Atlantic in the US, an analysis of the over 900 recorded incidents of conflict between drones and civil aircraft in the years 2014 and 2015, revealed that over 300 could be classified as ‘Close Encounters.’ Of these, around 240 were categorised as ‘near misses’ in many of which collision was avoided by timely initiation of evasive action by the pilot. In over 50 cases listed under ‘near misses,’ the drones involved were found to be operating in prohibited airspace in the vicinity of civil airports.

The basic problem essentially lies in the lack of proper regulatory framework for the integration of drones with manned aircraft traffic operating in controlled airspace. While drones were developed and were initially employed for military tasks, there is a profound change taking place in the situation. There is increasing employment of drones in many parts of the world as also in India, for a variety of non-military applications such as aerial surveillance, disaster management, maintenance of law and order, firefighting, air ambulance, management of border security, agricultural applications such as crop spraying or crop assessment, video coverage of events for the media, monitoring of wildlife, inspection of power or oil pipelines, monitoring progress of railway projects, anti-poaching patrols as well as simple recreational activity apart from even delivering pizza! As in the UK and the US, in India too, there have been a number of instances reported wherein drones have been spotted operating in the vicinity of airports or military establishments. Apart from the problem of conflict with civil air traffic, in India, the other concern is threat of espionage or terrorist attacks on vital installations with drones.

However, despite the growing challenge emerging in the domain of airspace management the world over, the International Civil Aviation Organisation is yet to promulgate a Standards and Recommended Practices for employment of drones in civil applications. It was only in May last year that the US Government notified regulations for the operation of drones in civil roles. For the US, integration of drones with civil air traffic will definitely be the most challenging exercise as its airspace has the highest density of traffic in the world. In Europe, member nations of the European Union (EU) have their own set of regulations presently for operation of drones. However, the European Aviation Safety Agency is in the process of formulating the rules that will regulate operation of drones in civil airspace all across the EU. The new regulations are expected to come into force this year.

The regulatory authorities in most parts of the world including in India have understood that drones are here to stay and in the long run, their use can be extremely beneficial to the economy. What is however a matter of concern for both civil and military aviation in India is that with the somewhat unbridled proliferation of drones in India as well and the absence of effective regulatory mechanism in place, conflict between manned and unmanned platforms which is only set to increase, is emerging as a major hazard to air safety. Fortunately, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, the regulatory authority in India, has responded to the changing times and has initiated the process of formulating a set of rules to regulate the operation of drones in the civil domain. The matter is urgent as the consequences of delay in finalising and effectively implementing a proper regulatory mechanism will only be catastrophic.