20/12/2018 14:02 GMT | Updated 20/12/2018 14:02 GMT

Gatwick Drone: Government Must Heed This Warning – Before A Fatal Plane Crash Occurs

The laws regulating drones simply haven’t kept up with the commercial popularity of the devices

PA Wire/PA Images

It is clear, after the incident at Gatwick today, that there is still a long way to go to make airspace safe when it comes to drones.

It is something that pilots have voiced their concern over for years. BALPA has called time and again for the Government, the regulators and airlines to take the issue seriously, before a fatal crash occurs.

Closing Gatwick Airport will have had a huge cost and has disrupted travel for so many people, many of whom won’t get to their destinations for Christmas now. But it is clear that a drone colliding with a manned aircraft could have had even worse consequences.

For pilots, safety is always the top priority and while closing the airport meant delays and disruption, it is clear that keeping manned aircraft away from a potentially fatal collision was the right thing to do. 

These devices are made up of hard materials and have heavy lithium batteries. The damage they could cause could be devastating.

Tests carried out on behalf of BALPA, the Department for Transport and the Military Aviation Authority found that drone impacts on aircraft windscreens and helicopter rotors can be catastrophic, even at relatively modest speeds with small drones. You can read the report on this testing here.

It is a particular worry for helicopters because they are often flying at low level,  just where they might come across a drone. 

The laws regulating drones simply haven’t kept up with the commercial popularity of the devices. So far, up until November this year there were already 117 near misses involving drones reported to the UK Air Proximity Board, compared to 93 for the whole of 2017. So, we are seeing more and more incidents involving drones.

The Government has tried to look at the issue, but it simply hasn’t gone far enough. The new regulations introduced earlier this year are woefully inadequate and still permit the flying of drones in areas where aircraft will be.

BALPA has consistently called for the restricted area around airports to be increased and for the fine if caught to be increased as well.

There should be no excuse for flying a drone near an airport. People who own a drone should understand the rules of the air and should know that they will face a severe penalty if they fail to fly responsibly.

We need registration for drone users as soon as possible and BALPA has repeatedly urged the Government to bring forward its requirement for drone owners to register with the Civil Aviation Authority and take online safety tests. That law is due to come in to force on 30 November 2019. 

As the drone technology improves, so does drone deterrent technology. The aviation industry needs to take advantage of all the many different pieces of kit that already exist to detect drones and help keep them away from airfields. We urge the regulators and airfield operators to consider putting this technology in place before a fatal disaster occurs.  

This latest incident at Gatwick highlights just how vulnerable the industry is to inappropriate drone use and makes it clear that tighter laws and better technology need to be implemented urgently. 

While the threat remains, BALPA will continue to campaign until the right measures are in place to keep manned flights safe from potential drone collisions.