The latest UK Airprox Board investigations into aircraft near misses in UK airspace have again contained a number of cases involving drones, which continues to highlight the major concern surrounding drones to the safety of manned aircraft.
With the addition of these latest Airprox Board investigations there had been a total of 28 reported near misses between drones and manned aircraft for 2015. Of these 28 near misses 13 were rated by the investigators as Category A incidents, the highest level of risk category. To put these 28 near misses into context, the Airprox Board have in their near miss investigations for 2015 reviewed a total of 197 cases involving all aircraft. In all of the 28 drone related cases, the drone pilot could not be identified, and therefore not a single prosecution has been brought relating to these incidents.
Outside of the identified near miss situations, the Civil Aviation Authority and the regional Police forces in the UK have been receiving increasing numbers of drone related complaints. However, further highlighting the challenges involved in identifying those flying drones where they are being misused, there were only 3 reported convictions of drone pilots in 2015 in the UK.
In the United States, the aviation regulatory body, the FAA, have been reporting hundreds of near misses between drones and manned aircraft per month, heightening the overall fears surrounding drone activity in the U.S. The extent of the problem has however been challenged by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who in analysing the data produced by the FAA, believe that the true number of actual near misses to be far smaller, with the bulk of the cases actually being reports of sightings of drones in general, unrelated to near miss situations.
A central fear surrounding drones flying in proximity to manned aircraft are that they may be sucked into a plane's engine leading in a worst case scenario to the plane being brought down. Of course the natural phenomenon of birds flying in conflict with aircrafts has always been a safety concern. New research carried out by Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond at the George Mason University has via their investigation of the official data of bird strikes on planes in U.S. airspace sought to provide a statistical analysis of the potential level of risk posed by drones weighing up to 2 kg have for manned aircraft. Whilst the researchers recognised that their work in using bird strikes on aircraft does obviously have some potential weaknesses, such as the composition of birds in contrast to drones, they found that within the parameters of their study there was given the 1 million drones being flown in the United States, a likelihood of a damaging drone strike on a manned aircraft occurring no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg drone flight time. Furthermore, they estimated that where a collision occurs, actual injury or death to someone aboard the manned aircraft would happen once every 187 million years of operation. This they concluded was an acceptable level of risk.
If Dourado and Hammond are correct, and of course there needs to be definitive research carried out utilising simulated situations where drones are flown into aircraft engines in order to further help in such an assessment, then as regards the safety of manned aircraft, at present it might be argued that a greater potential hazard which appears far less reported on than drones, has been the proliferation of laser pen shining incidents, where powerful laser beams have been shone onto aircraft, potentially blinding pilots. The official data from the CAA shows that for 2015, up to the end of September 2015, there were a total of 882 reported laser incidents.
As regards the regulatory criteria, Air Navigation Order (ANO) Article 222 provides that a person must not shine a light on an aircraft in flight that may dazzle or distract the pilot. Added to this Article, ANO Article 137 further provides that a person must not recklessly endanger an aircraft. In October 2015, a Cardiff man was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for shining a green laser at 3 aircraft and a police helicopter that endangered the aircraft. The following month in November, a British Airways pilot had his retina damaged when a laser was shone at him whilst landing his plane at Heathrow. The General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, Jim McAuslan, has called for laser pens to be reclassified as offensive weapons.
Lasers of course are used in many ways, and it has been reported that the United States are developing a drone weapon that will possess a laser powerful enough to shoot down missiles. Previous attempts by the U.S. military to develop such a weapon for use via a manned aircraft ended in failure. However, the notion of incorporating a laser within the payload of a drone raises the serious question of how long it may be before we hear reports of lasers being shone at civil aircraft from drones? The linkage of lasers and drones would appear to significantly raise the potential overall threat level to manned aircraft. There can be no doubt that it takes limited technical skill to attach a workable laser to a drone as can be easily seen on YouTube.
Globally, regulators are still struggling to get to grips with how to effectively control drone misuse. The identification of drones and their pilots is a paramount requirement for effective enforcement, but when we add potential malicious use such as lasers via a drone platform, effective means of identification of those who will of course not wish to be identified becomes even more challenging.