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Not a week goes by without headlines on drones flying in the surroundings of an airfield, or predicting that drones are a “midair tragedy waiting to happen”.  We might not be far away from those predictions. Yet, a recent event illustrated that sometimes – even if no tragedy has happened – every reckless drone operation could end up draining resources of law enforcement agencies, investigating a possible crime, but with a limited likelihood of success.

In the past 2 months, multiple serious near misses at UK and Dutch airports were reported by pilots, with at least three KLM crews sighting a drone on final approach to Schiphol Airport. The most prominent of these events – an inbound BA flight into Heathrow Airport – reported to police that an object believed to have been a drone – had struck the front of the aircraft shortly before landing. Although the investigation is not conclusive whether there was a collision and whether it was a drone, the event was of particular importance. Why? Because it illustrated the absurd level of resources that are needed by police to track an unregistered, untraceable, fast, cutting edge technology, such as an unmanned aircraft, including the smallest, recreational drone.

Searching for an unregistered and unmarked drone and its operator/owner is like looking for a needle in a haystack. With millions of drones already sold around the world and no mandatory registration in most of the countries [1], the drone cannot simply be traced back to its owner or operator. Also, drones are not yet required to have unique identification (e.g. an electronic chip) that could facilitate registration and tracing. The chances of identifying, detecting, and tracking successfully a drone and/or its owner are currently negligible and close to non-existent.

What is more, the regulatory approach proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency towards Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), presumes there will be no oversight by Aviation Authorities in the so-called ‘Open Category’ drones even for commercial drone operators and industry. This means in practice that drone operations will be overseen by the police. It will certainly need significant resources, training, up-to-date knowledge about and the state-of-the-art interceptive and tracking equipment to allow the police to perform even basic enforcement of such oversight.

Currently, without the ability to identify either the drone or its operator, it is a big question mark how this could work out. In the Heathrow incident case, the Metropolitan police had to carry out a thorough investigation. Can we count on such an investigation for every reckless, illegal and unsafe drone operations? Chances are the inability (or limited ability) to enforce the rules will grow proportionally to the sales rates of drones unless marking, registration and identification are made mandatory. And that’s indeed a tragedy waiting to happen.

[1] A positive example: In the US anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 lbs. (250g) and less than 55 lbs. (25kg) must register with the Federal Aviation Administration's UAS registry before they fly outdoors. People who do not register could face civil and criminal penalties.