Drones Pose a Real Threat to Commercial Flights

Drones have become cheap and fun to operate for many people. Operators love to fly their drones up into the sky, maneuvering them around while taking photos and videos from aerial vantage points. But do these activities come with risk? Absolutely!

Indeed, last week it was reported that on just one day, April 1st, three drones almost collided with aircraft that were landing at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands. And one of these drones apparently came within a mere 300 meters of a plane as it was heading toward a runway. 

Pilots from the KLM Cityhopper fleet who were operating a Fokker 70 and an Embraer 190, as well as the pilot of an EasyJet Airbus A319, each reported a drone flying near their respective planes. On top of all of that, if that were not enough, the pilot of the EasyJet reported to air traffic controllers that it had three separate drone sightings.

As a result of the foregoing, the air traffic controllers shut down one of the runways at the Schiphol airport. Moreover, these near-misses are subject to investigation by public safety agencies and Dutch law enforcement. In addition, Air Traffic Control Netherlands is conducting its own investigation.

Could a drone bring down a commercial aircraft upon collision? Well, the concern was high enough that one runway was closed, and the operation of drones in the vicinity of airports in the Netherlands is against the law. And the use of drones is seriously restricted in urban areas — they must be kept at minimum of 50 meters from buildings and roads and 150 meters from railroad tracks and people. These regulations in essence have banned drone operation in the largest cities of the Netherlands.

The concern about drones is heightened enough that it has been suggested that Dutch police have tested whether certain birds of prey might be able to intercept drones out of mid-air.

And, of course, the worry about drones is not confined to the Netherlands.  Several months ago, New York-based Bard College issued a report that revealed 327 drone-aircraft near-misses between December 2013 and September 2015. Of these near-misses, pilots had to take evasive action 28 times. One drone came as close as 8 meters of an aircraft.

Plainly, more needs to be done to minimize the danger drones pose to aircraft.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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