Several news organizations reported this morning that a drone struck a commercial airliner during its approach to land at an airport in England. CNN reported:
"British Airways Flight BA727 from Geneva, Switzerland, was coming in to land at London's Heathrow Airport when the pilot said he thought a drone had struck the front of the aircraft, London Metropolitan Police said."
During the drone strike, the plane was descending and at an altitude of about 1,700 feet. The plane landed safely and no passengers were injured. Officials inspected the plane and found no damage. Government authorities are investigating. They do not know who operated the drone, nor the type of drone. So far, officials haven't found any debris from the drone, during a land search.
In the United Kingdom, as in the United States, drone operators are supposed to operate their drones within flight restrictions (e.g., 400-foot maximum altitude, not near airports). The trouble is enforcement. There doesn't seem to be any way for government authorities to enforce the restrictions.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for maintaining the safety of our skies. Current flight restrictions by the FAA for drones (also called Unmanned Aircraft Systems):
"Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles. Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times. Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. Don't fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying. Don't fly near people or stadiums. Don't fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs. Don't be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft
What does "near" mean: 5 feet, 5 yards, 50 yards, 500 yards, or 5 miles? What does "careless" mean? Enforcement seems to be an open security issue. There is nothing stopping drone operators from violating these flight rules. The FAA registration rules seem equally problematic:
"Anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 lbs. (250g) and less than 55 lbs. (25kg) must register with the Federal Aviation Administration's UAS registry before they fly outdoors. People who do not register could face civil and criminal penalties... The owner must be: 13 years of age or older...A U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident."
How is this enforced when anyone can walk into a retail store and buy a drone (or order one online)?
The Heathrow drone strike should not be a surprise. There were two near misses in New York in August last year.The CNN news story also reported:
"A recent report, based on the center's analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data from August 21, 2015 to January 31, 2016, said there were 519 incidents involving passenger aircraft and unmanned drones in the U.S. within that period."
Last year, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) proposed an amendment to Federal Aviation Administration Re-authorization bill to require all remote-controlled aircraft sold in the United States to have tracking mechanisms installed. The mechanisms would use geo-fencing technology to keep drones away from high-value targets, such as airports, major parades, the Pentagon, major sporting events, and sports stadiums.
Drones have many valid uses, including faster, easier safety inspections of infrastructure, such as bridges, residential roofs, towers, and stacks; plus commercial package delivery. While drone pilots have been required to register with the FAA since December, there are still many unregistered operators.
The Heathrow drone strike could have had a very different result. It seems the drone bounced off the plane's metal exterior. A strike that punctures a windshield, or damages an engine, could produce a different outcome.
Once terrorists figure out the security hole with drone flight enforcement, you can bet they will test security limits. Heaven forbid terrorists pack explosives on larger drones and successfully fly them into a commercial airliner. If this happens, the travel industry will take a huge economic hit as consumers fly less often; or stop flying altogether (and takes trains or buses). Related tourism industries and locations would also be affected economically. People will lose jobs.
A more sensible approached would have been to have put in place drone flight rules combined with effective enforcement processes before allowing consumers to purchase drones. One could argue that limits also apply. Consumers cannot buy an M1A2 Abrahms battle tank or a howitzer cannon. Maybe consumers should not be able to buy drones until effective enforcement and safety processes are in place first. Last year, a person installed and fired a handgun on his drone.
If this bothers you (and I sincerely hope that it does), tell your elected officials. What are your opinions of drones safety?