A British Airways passenger aircraft was hit by what most likely was a drone as it prepared to land at Britain’s Heathrow Airport, police said, increasing worries about the risks posed by increasing civil drone use.
Police said the pilot of the BA flight from Geneva had reported that he believed a drone had struck the aircraft before it landed safely on 17 April at Terminal 5.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch confirmed on Monday that it had launched an investigation into an incident involving an unmanned air vehicle and a passenger aircraft at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport.
The use of civil drones, whether for commercial purposes such as crop surveillance, monitoring of natural disasters, photography or just as a leisure activity, is rising.
That popularity has led to increasing reports of near-misses with commercial aircraft.
The European Commission has conceded that “drone accidents will happen”, while the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority last year issued a warning after seven incidents in less than a year where drones had flown near planes at different British airports.
Pilots’ associations and others have called for drones to be fitted with geo-fencing technology, which uses GPS software to stop them straying into certain areas, along with height and distance limits. They also call for registration of drones.
Commenting on the latest incident, the British Airlines Pilots Association said that more education for drone users and stronger enforcement of the rules around drones were needed to keep aircraft safe.
“It was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don’t understand the risks and the rules,” BALPA flight safety specialist Stephen Landells said.
British Airways, which is owned by IAG, said in its statement that the aircraft, which had 132 customers and five crew on board, was fully examined by engineers before being cleared to operate its next flight.
The incident was reported to police by the pilot after the flight landed at about 1150 GMT on Sunday.
“It transpired that an object, believed to be a drone, had struck the front of the aircraft,” the police said.
The incident on Sunday followed another at Heathrow in February, when a New York-bound plane was forced to return to the airport after a “laser beam incident”.
Aviation expert Linden Birns notes that despite attempts at creating regulations for drones, only a fraction of operators have or are submitting to training and licensing. Thousands more of the small off-the-shelf consumer drones exist which were legitimately purchased in hobby shops and department stores, and continue to be flown by people who are unaware of the new regulations and who remain oblivious to the threat they pose to aviation safety. This is because most of these micro-drones operate without any audio communication between the person controlling it and either air traffic controllers or with the pilots of aircraft flying in the vicinity. These drones also typically are not equipped with transponders , making it impossible for air traffic controllers to determine what they are, their altitude and the intentions of their operators.
However, a micro-drone detection system has been developed by Airbus Defence & Space and is being offered as a safety enhancing solution to protect civil aircraft from drones operating in the same airspace.
The system combines sensor data from different sources with latest data fusion, signal analysis and jamming technologies. It uses operational radars, infrared cameras and direction finders from Airbus Defence and Space’s portfolio to identify the drone and assess its threat potential at ranges between 5 and 10 Kilometers, the company said.
Based on an extensive threat library and realtime analysis of control signals a jammer then interrupts the link between drone and pilot and/or its navigation.
Furthermore, the direction finder tracks the position of the pilot who subsequently can be arrested. Due to the Smart Responsive Jamming Technology developed by Airbus Defence and Space, the jamming signals are blocking only the relevant frequencies used to operate the drone while other frequencies in the vicinity remain operational. Since the jamming technology contains versatile receiving and transmitting capabilities, more sophisticated measures like remote control classification and GPS spoofing can be utilized as well. This allows effective and specific jamming and therefor a takeover of the UAV.
The Counter-UAV System has been tested extensively at Airbus Defence and Space’s own premises and during customer presentations in Germany and France. Depending on the required configuration, an operational system will be available from mid-2016. A contract has been signed recently with a company from the energy sector seeking protection of its assets, Airbus said.