LONDON — Five years ago, the risk that unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, might pose to airliners was not a problem on anyone’s radar. Today, the rapidly increasing number of near-misses between the two is ramping up concern in both pilots and regulators.

Increasing numbers of near-misses between airliners and UASs are being recorded worldwide. In January, for example, air traffic controllers at Dubai International Airport – the world’s busiest in terms of international passenger volumes – had to suspend all operations for almost an hour after several small UASs were seen close to the airport. Since then, the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi has slapped a ban on all drone sales to the public.


Airline pilots have been startled to encounter drones previously unheard-of heights. The crew of a Republic Airlines flight on approach to New York’s LaGuardia Airport in September 2014 reported passing a drone at 4,000 feet, while last July, a US Airways flight – again, on approach to LaGuardia – reported missing a drone by just 50 feet at the same altitude.

July saw a near-miss between a Lufthansa Embraer E-195 and an unidentified UAV on the approach to Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, and in the most recent incident, two aircraft flying last Friday near John F. Kennedy Airport, came within 100 feet of a drone on Friday.

On July 22, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, as part of the launch of a new code of awareness for UAS operators, released details of close calls involving aircraft and miniature vehicles, including one where an unidentified airline’s Airbus A320 came within an estimated 20 feet of a miniature helicopter hovering over London Heathrow Airport in July 2014. The A320 was at just 700 feet, on short finals.

The UK already had a ‘drone code’ that set limits on maximum distances from operators that drones could be operated, but its stipulations are now being re-emphasized. These include a maximum UAS operating altitude of 400 feet and commonsense rules such as not operating UASs near airfields or airports.

Criminal legislation already exists in the UK that can result in a prison sentence of up to five years for anyone convicted of ‘recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight’. This would apply to misuse of drones. (In 2014, the CAA successfully prosecuted an individual for flying a UAS in restricted airspace over a UK nuclear submarine base.)

“It is imperative that people observe the rules when operating a drone,” said CAA Director of Policy Tim Johnson, launching the new code of awareness. “Drone users must understand that when taking to the [UK’s] skies they are entering one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world. When doing so, they must be aware of the rules and regulations for flying drones that are designed to keep all air users safe.”

The CAA has applauded moves by UAS manufacturers to build ‘geo-fencing’ capabilities into their products’ software. Geo-fencing prohibits drones from being flown into pre-programmed geographical areas, such as airport control zones. It can also set altitude limits.In the US, meanwhile, the FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in February setting out new rules for what it classes as ‘small UASs’, namely those weighing less than 55lbs (25kg). These included setting a maximum altitude of 500 feet for UAS operation, keeping the vehicle within line of sight of the operator and daylight-only operations.

Part of the UAS problem lies in the fact that drones are still not on anyone’s radar – literally. Most are so small – and largely made of plastic, to boot – that they do not register on air traffic control screens. So airline pilots have no warning when a mini quad-copter or other drone hurtles past their wing. Whether a turbofan would be able to cope with ingesting a small UAS remains to be seen.

The other main problem is the explosion in the purchase of drones, not by commercial companies – which are generally aware of the regulations to which they must adhere – or to ‘traditional’ hobbyists, who are usually aviation-savvy.

In the past couple of years, small drones have become popular purely as toys and, as such, have been purchased by many people with little awareness of the potential dangers they pose to other air traffic and even less of the regulations governing their new gadgets. A few are likely to even deliberately fly their new gadgets near airports to get the same sort of thrill as those who flash laser pointers at aircraft.

In May, the FAA announced a public outreach campaign for the area around Washington, DC to reinforce the message that the city itself, and communities within a 15-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, are a ‘No Drone Zone’.

(Credits: Federal Aviation Administration - FAA)
(Credits: Federal Aviation Administration – FAA)

This followed on from a national campaign in December 2014 when the FAA partnered with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Small UAV Coalition to make sure everyone who flies a UAS during the holiday season and afterward was familiar with the rules of the air. As part of the effort, the FAA created a short safety video, Know Before You Fly, to educate model UAS users on the Do’s and Don’ts of their hobby.

The fear is that it will take a major incident in which people are killed before some users sit up and take notice of the risks inherent in their new ‘toys’. By which time, it will be too late.