Drone Collision with Plane in London Sparks Headlines, but Mercatus Study says Risk is "Minimal"

In the past 24 hours there's been uproar across the UK media, as well as coverage around the globe, after an apparent collision between a consumer drone and a British Airways plane landing at London's Heathrow airport.

british airways plane

Understandably, the media have run with the story, which is, despite reported 'near misses' occurring often, the first of its kind. But all we really have to go on is the apparent claim from the pilot that he believed he hit a drone, while the plane itself was very quickly cleared for its next flight and has been flying ever since. But why let these things get in the way of a good story?

The bottom line is this: Nobody likes the idea of hobbyists flying their drones near airports. As you might expect, they are banned from doing so in the UK, just as they are under FAA regulations in America. An environment where mid-air collisions are allowed to happen and become common-place is not a good idea for anyone involved. 

But does the media reaction to today's events exacerbate the hysteria around the risks posed by the drone industry, or is it both justified and proportional to the event? 

Last month Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond of the Mercatus research centre at George Mason university, VA, published a paper taking a closer look at the risks to aircraft posed by consumer drones

The study uses statistics gathered from the next best and most relevant thing, bird strikes, to analyze the risk of collision with an plane, and how dangerous it could be. The study estimates both the likelihood of any collision actually taking place at all, and the chances of that collision being fatal to passengers. So how often, according to the study, will a fatal collision between drone and plane occur? Well, about once every 187 million years...

The is introduced with the statement that, "We examine 25 years of data from the FAA’s wildlife strike database. Although aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths. The most serious reported incidents typically involved flocks of large birds. Since the addition of UAS to the airspace is similar in many respects to an increase in the bird population, we conclude that the risk to the airspace caused by small drones (for example, weighing up to 2kg, or 4.41 pounds) flying in solitary formation is minimal."

One UK newspaper, the Daily Mirror, reacts to the news on its Monday front page

One UK newspaper, the Daily Mirror, reacts to the news on its Monday front page

Pilots are calling for more research to be done into the collision risks that drones pose. Although it seems clear from the Mercatus study that, if drones are simply taken as an increase in the bird population, they pose little risk to human life in the event of a crash with an airliner. Whether or not that parallel can be drawn so simply is up for debate, but it does seem as though certain media elements are sensationalizing stories for the sake of it.