A police investigation is ongoing after a drone crashed into a British Airways jet over Heathrow in what is believed to be the first case of its kind.
The pilot of the BA727 flight from Geneva, carrying 132 passengers and five crew members, reported to police that the front of the aircraft had been struck by the unmanned object shortly before it landed at lunchtime on Sunday. The aircraft landed intact and has been cleared for its next flight.
Drones are taking off in a big way. Once the preserve of the military, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now used in a wide range of industries, from aerial surveillance of crops to search and rescue operations to delivery of medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions.
Civilian use of drones has also been growing, as consumer-grade devices become increasingly sophisticated and ever cheaper. Many people simply regard them as toys – the modern equivalent of the remote-control helicopter – while others use built-in cameras for taking photos and filming videos from the sky.
What are the rules for flying drones in the UK?
The rules governing use of drones are still evolving, as the implications of these new use cases become clear. For example, the House of Lords EU Committee called for the compulsory registration of all commercial and civilian drones, amid growing concern over the use of drones by private individuals with little knowledge of aviation rules.
Over the next few years major technology companies such as Amazon and Google are planning to use drones in their distribution and delivery networks. Amazon’s Prime Air is already testing its services in the UK. The consulting firm Radiant Insights predicts that drone sales will reach nearly $5 billion by 2020.
At the moment, there is nothing to stop you going and buying a drone and taking it out flying, as long as the drone weighs less than 20kg and you are not using it for commercial reasons.
However, you must avoid flying it within 150 metres of a congested area and 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.
“That’s probably going to be fine if you’re flying the drone in your back garden, but if you’re in a park, for example, you need to be very careful about making sure you’re not flying it within 50 metres of other people who are in the park,”
You will also need to fly the aircraft “within sight”. This means you can’t go above 400 feet in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. If you want to exceed that, you need to seek explicit permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Drone-airline near misses in the UK
Last month the Telegraph reported that the number of near misses involving aircraft and drones has quadrupled in the past year.
According to statistics released by the air regulator amid concerns about the safety of air space, some 23 near misses between aircraft and drones between April and October last year were investigated by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) according to its latest reports, including 12 given an A rating – meaning there was “a serious risk of collision”.
This compared to 12 incidents between July 2014 and July 2015, seven of which were recorded as near misses between drones and piloted craft.
In one incident a drone passed within 25m (82ft) of a Boeing 777 near London Heathrow Airport.
A Government strategy on the use of drones due to be published later this year.
Safety risk posed by drones
Anyone using a drone for commercial use is also required to seek permission from the CAA. To get a licence you will have to show that you are “sufficiently competent”. If your drone weighs over 20kg then it is only legal to use it in certified “danger areas” such as Parc Aberporth aerodrome in West Wales.
While most of the CAA’s enforcement efforts are focused on preventing people who are not properly licensed from using drones for commercial purposes, there have been cases where the CAA has stepped in and taken action, even when the person in question has been using the drone purely for domestic purposes.
Privacy risk posed by drones
She said that another thing to be wary of is using a drone to record images of other people without their consent, as this could be construed as a breach of the Data Protection Act, or of the CCTV code of practice, which was recently extended to include public use of drones where they are collecting information about individuals.
Although the Information Commissioner makes the distinction between ‘hobbyists’ and individuals or organisations who use drones for professional or commercial purposes, the CCTV code of practice states that “it will be good practice for domestic users to be aware of the potential privacy intrusion which the use of UAS can cause to make sure they’re used in a responsible manner”.
Is it legal to fly my drone?
The answer, in short, is ‘yes’ – with some provisos. The CAA admits that the rules and regulations around drone use are “evolving”, but this is the state of play at the moment: drones are classified as “unmanned aircraft”, and the CAA is keen to point out that they are most certainly a type of aircraft and “not toys”.
If your drone weighs over 20kg then you’re out of luck – it’s only legal to use it in certified “danger areas” such as Parc Aberporth aerodrome in West Wales.
Even those using a drone weighing less than 20kg for commercial use – receiving payment of any sort – are required to seek permission from the CAA. To get permission you will have to show that you are “sufficiently competent”. This is less clear-cut than manned aircraft, which has a well-established licensing procedure.
If your drone is under 20kg and you’re not using it for commercial reasons, then you still have some rules to follow. Anyone filming with a drone for their own purposes must avoid flying it within 150 metres of a congested area and 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.You will also need to fly the aircraft within sight. This means you can’t go above 400ft in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. If you want to exceed that, you’ll again need to seek explicit permission from the CAA.