Drone Mid Air Conflict Awareness
Are drones a significant safety issue?
The commercial aviation sector is very concerned. There have been a large number of airprox with drones. Drone numbers are expected to grow significantly over the next decade. The UK government has acted to protect some categories of airfields. See below.
The commercial drone operators are trained, understand the ANO and apply safety management principles. It’s likely that clubs will occasionally need to work with them, as some do already re helicopters and other occasional ‘working’ aircraft.
Open ground around gliding clubs can attract recreational drone flyers. So can ridges. There has been a collision between a recreational drone and a glider in the Netherlands. The glider landed safely with a damaged winglet. The hazard definitely exists. The risk is probably reasonably low, but it will take effort to avoid future problems. As in most potential midair collision scenarios, good communication and awareness can be an excellent mitigation. Of course communication isn’t always possible where operators of drones cannot be identified because of their distance away from the drone.
Recent legislation has resulted in a 5km exclusion zone around ‘protected’ aerodromes. A “protected aerodrome” is defined as an EASA certified aerodrome, a Government aerodrome, or a national licensed aerodrome (all defined in Schedule 1 to the ANO 2016), or any additional aerodrome prescribed in regulations by the Secretary of State.
What guidance should drone flyers follow?
The Drone Code is straightforward and easy to understand.
How can gliding club sites protect themselves?
Discussion with drone operators and the British Model Flying Association indicates that most recreational drone flyers do not deliberately get it wrong. It’s just that most have no understanding of aviation.
Any gliding club that believes it has an issue with recreational drones, or could have, is encouraged to engage with the drone flyers.
It’s important that our approach to them doesn’t lead drone flyers to believe they are being unfairly targeted! However, they do need to be made aware of other forms of aviation, the potential collision risk – and the implications, including personal liability, which most are unlikely to insure against. It should be made clear that drones should not be flown close to an airfield. Suggesting a known safe alternative location may be helpful.
The CAA has developed the idea of local education by clubs and provides a helpful set of resources on the Drone Safe website
Joining forces with local model-flying clubs, other local flying clubs and strip owners to get the message out there may help.
If clubs have a standard message their members can use when they come across drone flyers near the gliding club, it can reduce the risk of unnecessary confrontation and misunderstanding. Having an informative handout available to give to recreational drone flyers can help too. It may also be helpful to show them a glider and explain what a collision or sudden avoidance close to the ground would mean in terms of risk to life.
You never know, their drone flying might have whetted their appetite for some real flying!
What about drones and soaring gliders?
A drone flyer is perfectly entitled to fly their drone on a ridge (provided it’s below 400ft above the ridge) and gliders have no priority as such if the drone operator couldn’t have known the glider was there or approaching the ridge. It can be difficult for drone operators to see powered aircraft even when they hear them and gliders may be even harder to detect as they approach. Glider pilots should be actively wary of drones as they join a ridges or when traveling along ridges and should not fly towards drones that they see in any expectation that the drone operator will avoid them; “equal responsibility for collision avoidance and not to operate in such proximity to other aircraft as to create a collision hazard” (SERA 3205) applies.
And finally, if an incident does occur, please report it.