On Sunday, a British Airways pilot alerted authorities that his plane with 132 passengers and five crew members on board had been hit in the front by a drone while it was on approach at London’s Heathrow Airport. While the aircraft was able to make a safe landing and was thoroughly checked out, the incident is raising fears about drones and their potential use for a terrorist attack.
As BBC reports on April 17, if confirmed, this would be the first time that a drone actually collided with a plane in Britain. The plane was headed from Geneva, Switzerland, to London’s Heathrow Airport. The investigation into the incident is being led by the Metropolitan Police’s aviation security unit based at Heathrow.
According to British Airways spokesperson Michael Johnson, the Airbus A320 involved in Sunday’s collision was able to land safely and “was fully examined by our engineers and it was cleared to operate its next flight.” And Johnson added, “Safety and security are always our first priority and we will give the police every assistance with their investigation.”
In the UK, flying a drone near an airport is an offense and is punishable by up to five years in prison. So far, authorities have not confirmed that the object hitting the plane was indeed a drone. If it was a drone, authorities will hunt down the owner and hold him responsible.
Close encounters between unmanned aircrafts and large airplanes are occurring more frequently across the world as drones are becoming more and more popular.
Similar to Britain, flying a drone near a manned aircraft is prohibited in the United States. According to the FAA, unmanned aircrafts are not allowed within five miles of any airport without notifying the control tower. The operation of unmanned model aircrafts is also prohibited above 400 feet.
A December 2015 study showed that in the United States, hundreds of drones fly dangerously close to manned aircrafts in U.S. airspace, forcing many pilots to take evasive action. Britain is reporting similar incidents and Steve Landells, from the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), commented that it had been “only a matter of time before we had a drone strike”. He called for greater enforcement of existing rules.
Despite the new law that owners of unmanned aircrafts have to register their drones in the United States and laws prohibiting owners of flying their model toys near large airplanes, many drone owners are still unaware of the laws or the potentially dangerous consequences. A drone sucked into the engine of a large airplane might not only cause a collision but also the danger of being sucked into the engine causing the larger aircraft’s engine failure.
Sunday’s collision between a drone and the British Airways plane is sparking another important aspect of unmanned aircrafts. Who protects the airspace against terrorist attacks. While airports are under strict security measures, who can prevent terrorists from using a drone to hit a plane with the purpose of bringing it down.