A report published by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) has warned that illegal drone intrusions in airport airspace have increased by more than a third in 2018, putting aircraft and passengers’ lives at risk.
The UKAB recorded 125 dangerous nearby encounters of drones with aircraft in 2018, a sharp rise from 93 and 71 violations recorded in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
UKAB, which investigates drone-related incidents, said that 39 of these encounters were recorded at London’s Heathrow Airport. Manchester Airport witnessed 10 incidents last year.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) flight safety head Rob Hunter was quoted by the Financial Times as saying the rise was “incredibly concerning”.
Hunter further added: “A drone coming into contact with an airliner or helicopter could prove disastrous.
Hunter told the publication that the actual number of drone sightings at all airports in 2018 could be much higher than 125.
In January, Heathrow temporarily halted all departing flights as a safety measure after a drone was spotted flying near the airfield.
After the incident, Heathrow said: “We have invested significantly over the years to enhance our capabilities to detect and deter drones at the airport.”
A similar drone sighting incident at Gatwick Airport in December 2018 led to the closure of the airport for nearly 36 hours. During the busy Christmas period, at least 100 flights were cancelled that affected around 110,000 passengers.
After the Gatwick and Heathrow incidents, the UK Government enacted a law that increased drone exclusion zones around airports to a maximum of 5km, from the previous 1km.
The government and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also said that operators will have to obtain a permit before flying any drones in the restricted area and those violating this will now face a prison sentence of up to five years.