Drones will be crashed into passenger jets in mid-air to test safety after string of near misses near airports

Chris Greenwood
The Daily Mail

Drones, like the one above, are being used by police for surveillance, but the number of people with them has increased in recent years.

Drones will be deliberately smashed into passenger jets as part of a radical testing programme triggered by fears of a catastrophe in British skies.

Ministers ordered the tests after a series of near misses, some near major airports.

They have committed more than £250,000 to pay for a private study of what would happen if a drone struck a window or the fuselage of a plane.

Pilots warn it is only a matter of time before there is a collision and at one stage a close call was being reported every week.

Just this week (October 10), police launched an inquiry after two sightings of a drone being flown recklessly close to Heathrow Airport.

Senior officers branded the move ‘dangerous and illegal’ but despite an intensive search were unable to identify the culprit.

The secretive tests were ordered by the Department for Transport, in conjunction with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Ministry of Defence.

They are being carried out by Qinetiq, whose experts have the run of 5,000 square miles of restricted airspace in Snowdonia, Wales.

The move is in response to growing concerns from pilots that drones, which contain heavy lithium batteries, could pierce a plane windscreen.

It comes as the Department for Transport prepares to finally publish a long-awaited consultation on the future of drones.

The number in the skies has spiralled in recent years amid a growing clamour for their use in industry as well as leisure and photography.

Parcel delivery firms, including Royal Mail and Amazon, are investigating whether they could be used to reduce the burden on the roads.

Drones are already being used by police and immigration authorities for surveillance, to monitor remote wildlife and even deliver emergency supplies.

They could also become a common feature of safety inspections from thousands of miles of rail network to industrial chimneys, gas flare stacks and wind farms.

Dr Peter Downer, of the Ministry of Defence, revealed that the tests have been given the green light at a recent meeting of leading industry figures.

‘We are conducting mid-air collision studies for the CAA to look at impact of aircraft with unmanned vehicles,’ he said.

‘There is a series of trials about the security risks and we need to continue this with a commercial study. There will be further studies of mid-air collisions of drone impact with fuselage and windows.’

The aviation expert, who is leading the Government’s work on drones, highlighted that much more work needs to be done to highlight the dangers they pose.

According to the National Air Traffic Service, more than two million drones are now in circulation in Britain.

Good quality models can be purchased off the shelf for as little as £500 and several have been involved in high-profile incidents.

Twenty-three near-misses between aircraft and drones were investigated in just one six month period. Of these 12 were given the most serious rating of risk.

Over the summer there were a number of serious incidents including a near-miss between one and a flight carrying 62 people arriving at Newquay Airport.

A drone was also reported flying just 100ft from a Boeing 757 jet during a ‘critical phase of flight’ near Manchester Airport. Another close call was near Stansted in Essex.

Rules warn drone operators not to fly higher than 400ft (122m) and state that they should be kept away from aircraft and airports.

Aviation experts, including airport owners, are lobbying the Government for tougher regulation and stricter penalties for those who misuse the devices.

A Department for Transport spokesman said it is ‘leading efforts to develop a regulatory framework’ that matches the development of drone technology.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said drone users must act responsibly and observe ‘all the relevant rules and regulations’.

‘It is totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports and other aircraft and anyone flouting the rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment,’ he said.

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