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Drones posing hazard to passenger planes: Here's how

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The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) is calling for stricter safety standards on the use of drones after reports that a British passenger aircraft nearly collided with an unmanned aircraft 1,500 feet above the county of Essex.

An investigation by the United Kingdom Airprox Board reveals that a 74-seater ATR72 turboprop airliner was about to land at the Southend Airport when its pilot discovered what looked to be a remote-controlled drone flying "too close" to the plane's right wing. A transcript of the communications exchange between the pilot and the control tower shows the pilot describing it as a "remote-controlled helicopter with a very small engine."

The ATR72's co-pilot told investigators that he thought the drone, which was actually a red and black quadcopter, was flown deliberately close to the passenger plane. The Airprox Board's examination of the drone's flight path confirms this, suggesting the drone was flown to collide with the plane on purpose. Authorities have not been able to trace the drone's operators, and no one has come out claiming responsibility for the incident.

"The board was content that the ATR72 pilot had clearly seen the quadcopter but, unfortunately, there was too little information available to make a meaningful analysis of the occurrence or to accurately assess the risk," says the board. "Members were disappointed that someone would fly a quadcopter so high on the extended approach path to an airport, and that no one had come forward to help with the analysis."

The report follows a similar incident in Tallahassee, Florida where a small, camouflaged, remote-controlled aircraft nearly crashed into a 50-seater CRJ-200 2,000 feet up high flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to Tallahassee to ferry passengers of U.S. Airways. As in the Essex incident, authorities were unable to trace the drone and its operators.

The number of drone crash incidents have risen over the past few years as the prices of small, unmanned aircraft plunge to as low as a few hundred dollars to own and operate. In August, a tourist visiting the Yellowstone National Park crashed a remote-controlled drone into the 160-feet deep, 160-degree Fahrenheit Grand Prismatic Spring after park officials banned the use of drones at the park the previous month.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration also cites a drone crash at a Virginia Motor Speedway where an "unauthorized, unmanned aircraft" flew into the stands.

In Australia, a female triathlete had to be driven to the hospital to get stitches after a small drone flew right into her.

The BALPA believes drone regulations must be set up to ensure public safety as drone operators increasingly pop up. These regulations include drone operator training not unlike pilot training and more stringent security measures on the ground.

"The technology is developing quickly and we could see remote aircraft the same size as a Boeing 737 being operated commercially in our skies within 10 years," says BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan.

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