Near misses between small UAVs and commercial aircraft have been widely reported – however yesterday a direct collision was reported by the pilot of a British Airways 737 landing at Heathrow. I have been assessing the risk of such collisions for the past year and have come to the conclusion that airports and airlines often underestimate this risk.
How do we traditionally think about collision risk?
Commercial aircraft and remote control model aircraft have coexisted safely for many years with a relatively low collision risk. There is a model aircraft flying club within a mile of Heathrow. Characteristics of traditional model aircraft flying are:
- These models are difficult to fly – if you get it wrong the model crashes and you can’t fly again until the model is fixed. This flying difficulty means that the models that do fly have experienced operators and that there isn’t that much flying because there aren’t many experienced flyers.
- Such models are flown manually. Their position and trajectory are affected by air movement whilst the model aircraft are controlled visually. They cannot be flown easily to a predetermined position or trajectory.
- Most models are flown in flying clubs. This means that novices are taught by experienced operators and it also means that operators and their activities are known by other club members. Additionally it means operations are normally from known flying clubs.
This all means that traditional model aircraft do not tend to get into the direct path of commercial aircraft.
Why is UAV collision risk higher?
Thinking about common camera UAVs that can be bought for around £1,000:
Anyone can fly them – people don’t need to be experienced and typically not flying model club members. Anyone can buy them -walk into a shop or buy over the internet.
These small UAVs all have in-built GPS and hover capability. This means that if you let go of the control sticks the UAV just “sits” in space – however the wind gusts. The UAV can be directed using the control sticks or it can have a pre-programmed route.
Small UAVs can be launched more or less anywhere – from a patch of grass; from a car; from a window or a rooftop.
The collision risk to commercial aircraft from camera UAVs is not comparable with the collision risk from conventional model aircraft. The risk of collision is higher from camera UAVs.
Pager Power Limited undertakes UAV airport safety assessments and provides practical advice on managing and reducing UAV risk. Please call me if this is of interest.
Mike Watson, Chairman 01787 319001 firstname.lastname@example.org