Drone hits aircraft in European airspace – what next?

A plane hit a drone on its approach to Heathrow airport on Sunday - what does this mean for the future of the devices?

One of the defining characteristics of disruptive technology is that it outstrips society’s ability to legislate around it. Sometimes the results are comical – sometimes they are serious. For example, imagine what would happen if a consumer drone hit an aircraft on its approach to one of the world’s biggest airports. Heathrow, for example.

Well, imagine no more. The incident happened yesterday lunchtime, as reported by the UK’s Telegraph:

The pilot of the BA727 flight from Geneva, carrying 132 passengers and five crew members, reported to police that the front of the aircraft had been struck by the unmanned object shortly before it landed at lunchtime on Sunday.

Thankfully, there were no serious consequences – the plan landed safely and was cleared for slight later that day. The fate of the drone goes, for the time being, unrecorded.

Legislating for drones

However, the clear picture here is that the current rules and restrictions in the UK – in common with many countries – are inadequate to stop this happening. The whole area around Heathrow is controlled airspace, with a requirement that you inform air traffic control of use of drones over 7kg, and a strong recommendation that you do so for smaller ones, too. Here’s a map of the area from NoFlyDrones:

Drone report zone Heathrow.

Now that this oft-articulated fear has happened, the legislative debate about drones will clearly kick up a gear:

While there was no dramatic denouement, an actual collision does demonstrate that some operators continue to behave irresponsibly and illegally; and that current regulations are not sufficient to keep “rogue” drone operators from entering restricted airspace. But it may also show that threats of huge fines and jail time are equally ineffective, and it’s time to get serious about implementing one or several of the technological solutions that exist to keep drones out of restricted areas.

If some of the grander visions for drones – including Amazon’s delivery network – are to come true, we need both legislative and technology solutions to safety issues like this.

Lead image by Michael Coughlan and used under a Creative Commons licence