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Why UK decision makers should take note of European drone research

by Joji Waites BALPA Flight Safety Specialist

For many years British pilots have voiced their concern about the dangers posed by drones. A consistent worry is that there has been no real research in to how many of the devices are being operated in controlled airspace, whether that be deliberately or inadvertently. The latest figures from the UK Airprox Board show that over the last three years there have been an average of about 100 reported near misses between suspected drones and aircraft per year. But pilots believe this is just the tip of the iceberg, and a recent European Study seems to confirm this fear. 

The research by Eurocontrol, in conjunction with the Latvian CAA, 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. 

We believe 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. BALPA 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.

Today legislation is being tabled in parliament that would give police increased enforcement powers. The proposed Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill would give police the authority to issue on-the-spot penalties as well as the power to land, inspect and potentially seize drones that are being flown in an unsafe manner. This is something we welcome.

Drones are clearly here to stay and can bring huge benefits both commercially and recreationally. BALPA is supportive of this technology. But BALPA is also determined to raise awareness of the risk drones pose and demand that decision makers in the aviation industry, regulators and Government work effectively to ensure they are integrated into our airspace safely.