Reports suggest that a drone has hit a passenger plane in Quebec, Canada. The collision was confirmed yesterday by Canada’s transport minister Marc Garneau. While the major headlines will, of course, be: DRONE HITS PASSENGER PLANE and DRONES BRING DEATH FROM ABOVE, it’s important to get some perspective and appreciate the major conclusion from this story: Nothing happened.
First of all, we don’t yet have any evidence that this was, in fact, a drone. It could still turn out to be a plastic bag. Or maybe a bat. Both have previously been mistaken for drones. But why wait for the conclusion of an investigation when you can take the word of a pilot, right?
But second is the most important point: Whether this was a drone or not, thankfully no people were harmed and, according to the statement from Canadian Minister for Transport, “This is the first time a drone has hit a commercial aircraft in Canada and I am extremely relieved that the aircraft only sustained minor damage and was able to land safely.”
That’s good news. It would be interesting to see the extent of this ‘minor damage’. And it’s also important to take into account the likelihood of a collision when discussing the threat drones genuinely pose to manned aircraft.
The Skyjet flight was reportedly struck by a drone while inbound to Jean Lesage International Airport in Québec City on Thursday. There were six passengers and two crew members on board the airplane at the time of the collision.
Wheeling out the transport minister
It’s interesting that the Canadian Ministry of Transport felt compelled to issue a public statement on the incident. Perhaps it was in response to local news stories, but it’s also convenient at a time when drone regulations are under intense scrutiny in Canada:
“Although the vast majority of drone operators fly responsibly, it was our concern for incidents like this that prompted me to take action and issue interim safety measures restricting where recreational drones could be flown.
I would like to remind drone operators that endangering the safety of an aircraft is extremely dangerous and a serious offence. Anyone who violates the regulations could be subject to fines of up to $25,000 and/or prison. This applies to drones of any size, used for any purpose.
All airports, helipads and seaplane bases are “No Drone Zones” if you do not have permission from Transport Canada. For 2017, to date 1,596 drone incidents have been reported to the department. Of these, 131 are deemed to have been of aviation safety concern.”
Currently, drones are not allowed within 5.5 km (3.4 miles) of Canadian airports, helipads and seaplane bases. To help enforce that ruling, manufacturer DJI has ensured its Geofencing technology is in place across Canada.
The company said in a statement: “No details of the reported collision have been disclosed, and DJI is unaware whether any of its products may have been involved. DJI drones are programmed by default to fly no higher than 120 meters, and the Quebec City airport is restricted in DJI’s geofencing system.
Millions of drones are used safely and responsibly around the world for business, agriculture and enjoyment. DJI absolutely condemns any unsafe operation of drones, and urges all drone pilots to understand and obey the laws and regulations in their jurisdiction before launching their drones.”
There have been 1,596 drone incidents reported to Transport Canada so far this year, with 131 of them deemed to be aviation safety concerns.
How dangerous are drones to manned aircraft?
It’s obvious that drone flights should be restricted around airports and that pilots flying their drones within the flight paths of manned aircraft are both reckless and irresponsible.
However, it’s important to note that we still don’t know how dangerous a collision between a drone and a passenger plane actually would be. Commercial airliners are designed to withstand significant birdstrikes, for one thing. And any collision is likely to take place at relatively low speeds and low altitude, compared to the cruising speeds planes reach at high altitude.
A controversial study earlier this year by the British Airline Pilots Association and the UK’s Department for Transport didn’t help to bring more clarity to the situation. As well as not releasing the full details of the study, it appeared as though the methodology and results were biased towards a conclusion that all drones posed a significant threat to manned aircraft.
Until the major manufacturers get together and fund a comprehensive study, we’re going to be left with alarming headlines, exaggeration and plenty of negative publicity for the industry every time a near miss or collision occurs.