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A drone is going to bring down an airliner: why are we waiting for that to happen?

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Sooner or later – and I personally believe it will be sooner – an airliner full of passengers and crew is going to be brought down after colliding with a drone.

There – I’ve said it, though most in the industry won’t. That’s understandable, but it’s still not right.

We must have an urgent, honest discussion about what is happening in the skies today. Even more urgent, we must do something about the rapidly escalating danger that drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – pose to commercial air transport.

If further evidence of the critical situation were needed, look at what happened yesterday close to Warsaw airport. A Lufthansa Embraer E-195 with 108 passengers aboard narrowly missed a collision with a so-far unidentified drone. We now sit just 330 feet away from a different story entirely – one that would have been an instant global newsflash and would have dominated the headlines for weeks; “Airliner brought down by drone: at least 100 dead”.

That’s not hyperbole. It’s true. This incident, which follows an alarming increase in the number of reported near-misses between airliners and drones close to major commercial airports – requires immediate attention. I would argue the issue of drone oversight and control should take priority over airliner tracking (post MH370’s disappearance), military/intelligence agency communications with commercial air transport authorities (post MH17’s missile shootdown), and psychological monitoring of pilots (post Germanwings 9525 crash). Why? Because the threat to airliners from drones is more likely and more imminent than the scenarios that led to any of these tragedies.

If (when) an airliner is brought down by a drone, there will be outrage, there will be calls for immediate action, there will be task forces, there will be finger-pointing, and there will be hundreds – likely thousands – of reported near-miss incidents to point to. There will be new legislation restricting the use of drones near airports, requiring drone users to be registered, certified, and take some level of training. And there will be stiff penalties for non-compliance. My question is, why are we waiting?

Regulating and monitoring drone use, especially small UAVs, is not easy and won’t be cheap. But that’s the case with most safety practices in commercial air transportation. It won’t be popular with drone enthusiasts and the UAV industry. But popularity surely does not trump an industry that will be responsible for safeguarding almost 4 billion passengers by 2017 and which generates trillions of dollars of economic benefits to countries everywhere?

So why aren’t we – by which I mean FAA, ICAO, IATA, aircraft manufacturers, the airlines, law enforcement agencies and governments everywhere - not making UAV regulation and control their top priority?

I have an awful suspicion, and one best illustrated by comparing the drone threat to that of the German threat in World War II. Germany had its Enigma encryption machine for encoding and communicating top-secret messages. Famously, British cryptologists created a machine that cracked the Enigma code and allowed intelligence services to read those German communications and hence know about planned strikes. But they often didn’t act on that knowledge because to do so would have given away the fact that they had cracked Enigma, potentially extending the war if Germany then changed the code. The costs of an extended war were deemed higher than those of individual losses, such as planned allied city bombings or warship strikes, which were known about thanks to the decryption machine but could not be acted upon.

With today’s UAV problem, as complex and expensive as it will be to resolve, I wonder whether another cost calculation is being considered? Getting sufficient funds, resources and commitment to implement an effective, global drone-control regime in place will be very challenging and likely a slow process. Unless. Unless an airliner, let’s say a western airliner with some 300 people onboard, is brought down by a drone. Whether that act by the UAV operator is unintended or deliberate, the game changes overnight and the path to drone regulation and legislation becomes much easier to fund and implement. Three hundred lives is a very high cost, but perhaps worth the greater good of thousands of lives saved by an expedited UAV-control system?

I don’t want to wait for the “enigma solution”. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

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