Drone-plane collisions and close calls on the rise

American aviation industry groups urged Congress to tighten regulations after video shows UAV metres from an airliner

A drone flies near an Airbus A340 aircraft in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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Aviation regulators are investigating a flurry of collisions and close calls between consumer drones and aircraft, encounters they say pose significant risks to the flying public.

Canadian authorities released a report on Wednesday on a collision there involving a small charter plane while regulators said they are trying to confirm whether an air-tour helicopter in Hawaii clipped one as well.

The incidents come just days after leading aviation-industry groups urged Congress to tighten regulations on hobbyist drones.

“The use of drones near an aerodrome or within controlled airspace poses a serious risk to aviation safety,” Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said in the report. “For this reason, all recreational and non-recreational drone users must be knowledgeable about and comply with the regulations, including the requirement to operate within line of sight.”

So far, none of the confirmed collisions has triggered a crash or even led to serious damage.

Still, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a study based on computerised models last fall concluded that drones would cause more damage than birds of similar size because they contain metal parts. Significant damage to windshields, wings and tail surfaces was possible, the study found.

The surging number of incidents, combined with a regulatory system that makes it difficult to monitor drone flights, has alarmed by traditional aviation groups.

"The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing," said a letter to US lawmakers earlier this week from Airlines for America, a trade group representing large carriers, and two unions that represent pilots and controllers.

In the latest incident in Hawaii that occurred over the island of Kauai, no one was injured but the pilot reported scratches to the air-tour helicopter's belly, according to an emailed statement from the FAA.

If confirmed that as a drone collision, it would mark the second such case involving an aircraft in the US. A drone struck an Army helicopter near in New York City on September 21, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The helicopter landed safely. The drone’s operator had flown the device out of his sight and did not see the helicopter.

A small drone that struck a charter plane carrying eight people above Quebec City highlights the need for people to follow legal restrictions, an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada concluded.

The TSB could not find debris from the drone or its operator after the collision in October 12. It called on operators of the devices to better educate themselves on the rules and safety hazards. The plane, a twin-turboprop, was able to land safely with only minor damage to its left wing, the report found.

Even groups that have traditionally defended the rights of hobbyists to fly drones have been raising increasing alarm.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents hobbyists who fly at clubs around the country, issued a statement on Tuesday saying “some rogue flyers choose to operate in an unsafe manner despite existing drone laws.”

It called on the FAA and local police to “hold these people accountable”.

In the US, drones are typically restricted to flights within 400 feet of the ground and within sight of the operator. But in the thousands of FAA reports of possible drone safety incidents, many involved apparent illegal flights.