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The road to drone legislation

by Captain Tim Pottage BALPA NEC

It has been a long slog to get where we are with drones. The Government has now finally recognised BALPA’s numerous calls and increased the restriction zones for drones around airports. It’s something we have campaigned for for years. A win for flight safety… but we must not forget that there is still a long way to go before we can be sure that drones are integrated in to our airspace safely.

Recent events at Gatwick and Heathrow came as no surprise to pilots. BALPA has been warning about the dangers these devices pose for many years. As long ago as 2015 I sat at a table, opposite representatives of the Department for Transport, highlighting the problem and looking at how to address it. And it has taken dozens more meetings (some quite tetchy) to get where we are today.

Pilots noted the rise in near misses several years ago and from the beginning realised that these devices have the potential to cause a catastrophe if the threat is not taken seriously. That’s why BALPA led the way in getting the Department for Transport and the Military Aviation Authority to co-sponsor collision testing.

The result was clear. At speeds at which we routinely operate, a drone could cause serious damage to the windscreen or rotors of an aircraft or helicopter.

This research undoubtably helped show those in the corridors of power that the something needed to be done about drones. But for perhaps for political and commercial reasons they seemed reluctant to take the plunge and make a change. Then in May last year the Government eventually announced it was to put new laws in place. Hurrah! But when we lifted the bonnet on the legislation, we immediately saw and highlighted areas pilots felt needed to be significantly strengthened.

Making the restricted zone fit for purpose, bringing in registration as quickly as possible and ensuring investment in drone detection and countermeasures were all high on our priority list. As with any argument it is always easier to make if you have others who can help. We worked closely with others in the military, general aviation, ATC, and international pilot colleagues to build our case and have evidence to back it up.

Then came the Gatwick attack. A wake-up call for the Government and airlines. The impact of the drone attack was no surprise to pilots who have long recognised that safety must come first when it comes to drones and that can mean grounding flights if there is a danger of collision. Then came the announcement of the changes to the law we had been asking for.

Only days later and more disruption at Heathrow again put the issue on the agenda.

The second drone incident in less than a month showed how important it is that airports invest in drone countermeasures immediately. It is something that BALPA has been asking for, and again we renewed our calls in the wake of the attacks. We continue to call for the acceleration and strengthening of other drone legislation planned for later this year. BALPA believes it is time to act swiftly and decisively.

So, change has begun and BALPA members can be proud that we have helped bring this about.
But it is not over. On the 9th December we asked the Government to ensure that every airport urgently puts drone safety measures in place in the interest of public safety and avoiding delays. Emergency helicopters flown by BALPA members remain at risk when they operate away from a licenced airfield, so it is no time to rest and be complacent.

BALPA will continue its dialogue with those in power, with the Government, airlines and regulators, to ensure the right regulations are put in place, so that drones and manned aircraft can share the air safely.