The UK Department for Transport (DfT) and UK CAA are tightening their unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) rules, just as research was released on the potential collision damage to commercial aircraft.
Under the proposed rules, drones weighing more than 250 grams (0.55 lb.) will have to be registered online or through apps. Users will also have to take a safety awareness test to prove they understand UK safety, security and privacy regulations.
The DfT acknowledged drones offer “substantial benefit” in terms of productivity, safety, emergency service- and leisure-use, but it said the measures were aimed at improving accountability and encouraging owners to act responsibly.
The government is also looking into increased use of “geofencing,” GPS-based technology that acts like an invisible shield, stopping drones from entering sensitive zones such as prison or airport space.
“Some manufacturers have already programmed their drones not to fly in sensitive areas, but the government would like to reinforce this work,” the DfT said.
The action follows the release of research, commissioned by the DfT, British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) and the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), which reveals that drones weighing 400 grams could damage aircraft windscreens—particularly helicopters.
“Airliner windscreens were found to be much more resistant. It would take a heavier drone of around 2 kg [4.4 lbs.] to critically damage an airliner windscreen, and only if the airliner is flying at a high speed; not during takeoff and landing,” the DfT said. “The government is feeding the data into relevant security and safety bodies alongside manufacturers, to ensure they implement improvements to safety.”
Pilot lobby group the European Cockpit Association (ECA) called for urgent action from European authorities following the release of the report, saying it gives “robust proof” that damage could be “catastrophic,” even from small drones traveling at modest speeds.
“Testing shows that drones can cause more damage than a bird of equivalent mass at the same speed,” ECA said. The body called for work toward greater awareness, the need for qualifications, more stringent oversight and licensing, drone registration, mandatory geofencing and investment in technology to allow air traffic controllers to “see” drones.
“This report clearly shows that readily available drones, which can be flown by anyone, can shatter or go straight through an aircraft windshield or shatter a helicopter rotor. And those impacts would have catastrophic consequences,” BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton said. “We hope that urgent government action will now follow to control this proven threat before there is a disaster and lives are lost.”
UK air traffic control body NATS also welcomed the measures, but said work in other areas—such as electronic identification—would help air traffic controllers see where drones are flying.
“One of the greatest challenges for us at NATS is ensuring safety when we can’t see everything going on in the skies above us. This is both a technical and political challenge. NATS currently does not have the remit, or authority, to manage aircraft operating in low-level airspace unless a pilot requests a service. Consideration should be given to whether this needs to change as the use of drones continues,” NATS said.
The body also flagged the drone safety website that created in cooperation with the UK CAA, as well as its free airspace awareness app, Drone Assist, which has accumulated over 20,000 users since its December 2016 launch.
Through the app, users can create flight reports, which are visible to other app users and potentially other airspace users. There is an interactive map, with areas categorized as red, amber or green, depending on risk. The map also shows airspace used by commercial aircraft and highlights ground-based hazards, such as power lines, schools or sports venues. Weather data has also been added.
“This informs drone users where it is safe to fly and could be developed further to support the government’s ambitions. We welcome steps to introduce no-fly zones to improve safety and are actively supporting this work,” NATS said. “We support plans for a mandatory drone safety awareness test and have already begun work on a free online training course, targeting recreational users that will be launched later in the summer. We already offer expert training for those looking to operate drones commercially.”