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New study shows drone presence in controlled airspace is underestimated, say pilots

As the Unmanned Aircraft Bill goes before parliament for a second reading, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) says new European research backs BALPA’s concern that the number of drone flights in controlled airspace is being underestimated.

The research by Eurocontrol involved comprehensive monitoring of airspace around the Latvian airport of Riga. Latvian airspace has similar restrictions on drone operations to the UK and Riga has a similar number of movements to Luton airport with the same single-runway configuration.

In a 37 day period, the study recorded 171 drone flights, of which 159 (or 91%) were considered illegal because they broke national regulations such as height limits or rules regarding how close to an airport you can fly. 71 drone flights were detected closer than 5km to the runway during the monitoring period, and 75 were detected above 400ft.

BALPA’s flight safety department says these results are worrying and show that regulation alone is not enough. Training, education and enforcement of drone laws is also vital, as is a means for drones to be electronically identifiable.

With this is mind, BALPA says the increased police enforcement powers contained in the proposed unmanned aircraft bill are welcome. The pilots union wants to see a similar monitoring study here in the UK, to identify the actual presence of drones in the vicinity of a UK airport.

BALPA Flight Safety Specialist, Joji Waites, said:

“Pilots have always feared that their reported sightings of drones are just the tip of the iceberg and this study backs that concern.

“The results indicate that regulation alone is not enough, and training, education and enforcement are equally important. That’s why BALPA has welcomed the increased police enforcement powers in the proposed Unmanned Aircraft Bill.

“BALPA would also like to see a similar study of drone usage in controlled airspace, carried out in the UK so that we have a better understanding of the extent of their operations.

“At the moment we can’t be sure how many drones are operating at any time and that makes it difficult to ensure the right measures are in place to integrate them safely.”


Unmanned Aircraft Bill Lords second reading is due to take place on Monday 27th Jan.

Eurocontrol in collaboration with the Latvian Civil Aviation Authority conducted a six-month assessment of controlled airspace surrounding Riga airport, with a view to building a detailed picture of operations. This would facilitate the development of requirements for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft (UA) into this airspace. Part of this study included monitoring of the airspace to identify the extent of UA operations within, which revealed both interesting and concerning results:

  • Of the 174 UA flights detected in the Riga control zone (CTR) over a 37-day period of continuous monitoring:
  • 159 (or 91%) were considered to be illegal
  • 75 (or 43%) were detected above 120m (corresponding to the 400ft limit in the UK)
  • 71 (or 41%) were detected within 5km of the runway threshold at Riga airport
  • Only 2 flights (or 1%) had been authorised by the Latvian CAA
  • The maximum UA altitude detected was 723m (or 2,372ft) above take-off point.

Note: Eurocontrol intends to conduct a similar study in Estonia
Information and statistics on drone near misses in UK airspace can be found here: