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Why pilots are still droning on about drones.

by Dr Rob Hunter BALPA Head of Flight Safety

Drones have been on our radar for some time. BALPA was quick to recognise the danger this new technology poses and acted fast when reports of near misses began to rise.

We launched a campaign to highlight the problem and called on the Government to act swiftly to make the integration of drones in to UK airspace safe. We lobbied parliament, briefed MPs, carried out research in to the issue and engaged in a media campaign to make the public aware of the problem.

And the good news is that people in positions of power were listening. This week, new laws came in to force that restrict drones to a height of 400ft and prevent them from being flown within 1km of an airport.

So, you may say, “why is BALPA still droning on about drones?” The answer is simple. This legislation is a first step on a journey that still has a long way to go.

While BALPA is pleased the Government has listened to its calls to tighten laws on drones, we know much more still needs to be done to make their use near airports safe. In particular, we are highlighting the fact that aircraft could easily be below 400ft at 1km from an airport which means there is still a zone where manned flights and drones could come in to contact.

BALPA is committed to continuing its dialogue with the Government and has welcomed the news it is to open a consultation on the new laws ahead of a drones bill. We will be taking part in the consultation, highlighting the fact that a drone at 400ft, 1km away from an airport could still be directly in the flight path and that is plainly not safe, yet is allowed under the new legislation.

A feature of this legislation is that it relies on two approaches to mitigate drone versus manned aircraft collision.

The first is exclusion of the drone from within 1km of the airport boundary, the second is drone operator responsibility to avoid collisions.

The use of operator responsibility relies on the operator having the information and control to exercise this responsibility.

In our view, when operating drones along the flight path of arriving and departing airliners just outside the 1km exclusion zone, a collision risk arises that is essentially beyond the drone operator’s control.

There are many reasons for this: the difficulty of knowing the relative positions of the aircraft caused by parallax and depth perception issues, the speed and momentum of the airliner and the differing ways in which the aircraft will respond to changes in wind direction and speed.

A particularly important reason is in relation to a key safety feature of airliners. When the pilot of a commercial airliner decides to abort a landing, the pilot will usually engage a special type of autopilot function called “go around”. This function applies high power to the engines and climbs the aircraft to a predetermined height in the direction that the aircraft was heading at the moment the go-around switch was pressed. A go-around decision by the pilot is often a split-second decision and after the button is pressed the pilots have a very high workload as there are many important changes to be made to the aircraft that are not undertaken by the autopilot.

The possibility exists that a commercial airliner could be just over 1km from the airfield and be below 400ft when a go-around is undertaken leading to a high power automatic climb into a drone that could be above the airliner. For these reasons BALPA will continue to argue for a revision of the current drone exclusion zone around airports the interests of safety.

Beyond this law change pilots, regulators and those in the corridors of power must continue to understand and adapt to the rise in this new technology. Making drones visible on radar and putting in place education to ensure those who fly them know how to do so responsibly are steps on the journey that we continue to call for and are still to come.

So, we’ve begun the journey, but it is no time to rest. We are urging the Government to be bolder and are pushing for swift action to make these laws more robust and properly protect passengers, crew and those on the ground from potentially catastrophic collisions.