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Who said ‘pilots hate drones’?

by Nancy Jackson Media and Communications Officer

It is an accusation BALPA has faced time and again: “BALPA hates drones.” But it is an accusation that is unfounded and fails to understand the BALPA of today.

At the heart of BALPA, is the community of pilots that are our members. And for those pilots, making every flight a safe flight is the priority. That of course, means understanding all aircraft in the sky – manned or otherwise – and the challenges they bring.

In many ways, pilots are ahead of the curve when it comes to foreseeing a future that includes drones. That’s why BALPA has been at the forefront of calls to safeguard the future by ensuring rules are put in to place so the devices are integrated in to our airspace in a safe manner. We’ve been working with the Government on new laws, engaging with drone users, and I have even been lucky enough to meet with members of the UK’s first police drone unit.

The emergency services have been quick to identify the potential of drones. The fire service uses ones with heat imaging cameras to assess blazes and identify hotspots, while the police use them for all sorts of incidents, from searching for missing people to giving an aerial view of a raid.

My visit to Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police Drone Unit gave me a great insight in to how these devices are likely to be used in the future and how seriously these professional drone handlers take their role. The police drone pilots have to undertake CAA-approved training before they can fly and they clearly know the rules of the air. They also recognise the importance of communication. They often work hand in hand with the police helicopters, which means sharing the airspace and considering safety as a priority. You can see a film about my visit to the drone unit below.

It is not just the emergency services that are looking at ways of exploiting this new technology. The news is rife with stories about delivery companies that are looking at developing drones that could carry parcels to our doors. At the same time film and media companies are already using small camera carrying drones to get amazing shots from above.

So, pilots understand that drones are here to stay and have potential both commercially and recreationally. But safety comes first. Pilots have been very concerned about the rise in near misses between drones and manned aircraft.

So, we must respond to the rise in drone popularity and put in place the right regulations and education to share the air and keep these aircraft form colliding. PC Tom Shainberg from Devon and Cornwall Police Drone Unit says it’s a time of change in the industry and everyone needs to adapt:

“We are going through a transition of manned aviation and unmanned aviation, and it’s going to take a few years to integrate it successfully. But I think there will come a time when there will be more unmanned aircraft in the sky than manned aircraft. It’s here to stay. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. We need to get onboard, adopt the technology and make sure its integrated properly.”

BALPA is responding to this new dawn in aviation and is at the forefront of understanding how this technology can be adopted safely. In fact, BALPA has opened its doors to professionals who have the required qualifications and training to fly drones commercially. We offer drone pilots Associate Membership and give them a voice so that together we can drive up standards and bring forward the highest levels of safety across all aviation.

At the same time as opening our membership to professional, suitably-qualified drone operators, we are also engaging with and helping educate hobby drone users. We have attended CAA awareness events and met with people who fly drones for a living and for recreation. You can find out more about the ‘Share the Air’ event here.

And Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police also see the importance of events like this. They hold Safer Drones Workshops to try to educate drone users on how to fly safely, legally and responsibly.

British pilots have also been vital in helping the Government to put laws in place that will keep drones and manned aircraft safe.

BALPA’s campaigning put the issue of drones on the political agenda and helped bring about a commitment from the Government to act and make new laws with stiffer penalties to tackle the issue. And our work is continuing in this area. BALPA is advising the Government on how to implement the changes.

So BALPA is far from hating drones. We understand that drones are an important new form of aviation. Pilots embrace the challenges this brings and welcome the safe introduction of drones into common use.