We are being made increasingly aware of the threats posed to passenger aircraft by drones; a week ago, the UK government announced plans to introduce drone registration and safety awareness courses for pilots. A month ago, a drone flying close to the runway caused a runway closure and diverted five flights at London Gatwick Airport. In February 2016, there was a near miss at 12,500 ft over Heathrow; the drone pilot in question had clearly disregarded the 400ft flight restrictions in place in the UK. In fact, 70 near misses were recorded in 2016, more than double the year before. When it comes to drones hitting planes, there are plenty of unknown factors including the size and mass of the UAV and the speed and angle of travel upon contact. Scientists worldwide are running a number of simulations in order to test potential damage.
Where birds are concerned, the direct threat to aircraft is more well known. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, there were 65,139 reported bird strikes between 2011-14. The emergency landing of a US Airways Airbus in the Hudson River in January 2009 came after it had flown through a flock of Canada geese within three minutes of take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The plane had lost all engine power and the fortunate escape, thanks to the wits of the pilot.
Weighing Up The Risks
Whilst a DJI Phantom 4 drone weighs just 1.3kg, a full-grown male Canada goose clock in at 6.5kg. What’s more, geese are most likely to fly in flocks, which swiftly multiplies their risk factor. However, the drone’s mechanical and electrical parts are what raises its risk profile. The lithium ion batteries found in consumer drones pose a high risk to planes; birds might have a greater mass, but they’re far less likely to catch fire.
As well as introducing legislation around flying, making changes to drone and aeroplane design is also a possible solution. Whilst drone-related incidents are on the rise, prosecutions are rising at a far slower rate. However, speaking on the difference between a bird and a drone, Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, noted that “nobody tells a bird it can’t be in the air.”
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