British police and air accident authorities investigated an incident where an Airbus A320 carrying 137 people hit an object believed to be a drone at a height of about 1,700 feet (518 meters) while it was approaching Heathrow Airport.

The plane landed without a scratch and afterward cleared to take off again after engineers inspected it. However, the occurrence has drawn attention to the number of unregulated drones in the sky and the possibility for catastrophe if they hit a plane—either accidentally or on purpose.

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London’s Metropolitan Police stated that the incident occurred over Richmond Park, a large open expanse a few miles from the airport. CSP Martin Hendry said the incident “highlights the very real dangers of reckless, negligent and sometimes malicious use of drones. The potential is there for a major incident.”

How Many Drones Are Out There?

Since small drones bought for private use often don’t have to be registered, the authorities don’t know exactly how many. Moreover, the market is growing fast as drones become cheaper and easier to operate. In Britain alone, electronics stores sold thousands during the 2015 Christmas season. Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at aerospace research company Teal Group, estimated that there are “several million” drones in the United States.


Tony Tyler, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, told an aviation conference in Denmark that drones “are here to stay.” But he added that we “must not allow them to become a drag on the efficiency of the airways or a safety threat to commercial aviation.”

What Are the Rules?

Distinction between commercial drone operators, which must be licensed, and those used recreationally is put into consideration by many countries.

In Britain, operators using small drones weighing less than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) for recreational activities need not license.


Drones are prohibited to fly above 400 feet (120 meters), must be within sight of the operator, and kept away from planes, helicopters, airports, and airfields. Violators can receive six months in prison and a fine—though prosecutions have been rare—but endangering the safety of an aircraft carries a maximum of life sentence.

How Many Near Misses between Drones and Aircraft?

Although actual collisions seldom happen, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority says there were 40 near misses between drones and aircraft in 2015, compared to nine in 2014. Before that, such incidents were too uncommon to merit annual statistics.


What Could a Drone Do to a Plane?

The biggest worry is a drone damaging the windshield or fuselage of a plane—with the additional danger that lithium batteries on the drone could ignite—or getting sucked into an engine.

Aviation systems expert Philip Butterworth-Hayes says there has been relatively little research on the impact of such a collision.


What Can Be Done to Cut the Risks?

The British government is considering introducing a drone-registration scheme in order to trace the aerial vehicles back to their owners.

In the U.S, the FAA introduced a registration plan in December, with owners facing a fine if they don’t comply. By the end of March, more than 400,000 people had registered.


While new rules and better education are part of the solution, technology will also be relevant. Drones can be fitted with geo-fencing software that prevents them from entering restricted zones. But geo-fencing technology is not a legal requirement for many drones, and criminals or those bent on terror could potentially disable the software.

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