Drone near-misses with planes have more than tripled in two years, new figures show.
Some 92 incidents were recorded in 2017, according to analysis of UK Airprox Board (UKAB) data.
This is compared with 71 during the previous 12 months and 29 in 2015.
Former RAF and British Airways pilot Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at pilots’ union Balpa, described the figures as “very worrying”.
He believes the true extent of the problem could be even more severe as pilots struggle to see drones from cockpits.
“It’s really hard to see something that small,” he said.
“There’s a possibility there are a lot more near misses that aren’t being seen,” he said.
“This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”
Twenty-eight near misses in the past year were classified as having the most serious risk of a collision.
These included incidents near the London airports of Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, as well as Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.
Mr Landells explained that pilots are particularly concerned about near misses which occur when they are preparing to land.
“It’s a critical stage of the flight and you really don’t need to be distracted,” he said.
“If you see a drone flying past your cockpit it’s a real shock to the system.
“Anything that distracts you from getting the aircraft down on the ground is a safety hazard.”
There have been several near miss incidents reported in the past year, and in previous years pilots have reported that their plane has actually collided with a passing drone.
On one occasion in October last year an Airbus A321 coming into land at Heathrow Airport flew so close to a drone that the pilot thought it had crashed into the plane, a UKAB report said.
A collision was reported at the same airport in April 2016 after a British Airways pilot said his plane, which was coming into land at Heathrow Terminal 5, had been hit by a drone. It landed safely.
A study part-funded by the Department for Transport found that a drone weighing 2kg could critically damage a plane windscreen in the event of a mid-air collision.
Some tests have suggested that drone collisions could be more damaging than “bird strikes”, which happen when birds collide with an aeroplane and damage its engine. This happened most famously in 2009 when a plane landed safely on the Hudson River in New York after striking a flock of Canada geese which took out both its engines.
Available for as little as £30 and often boasting built-in cameras, sales of the gadgets have risen sharply in recent years.
Drone users must follow restrictions on flying near airports, people and built-up areas.
The Government is due to publish a draft Drone Bill in the coming months which will require users to register and sit safety awareness tests.
Drone users must already follow a number of restrictions when using the gadgets.
In November 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority launched a website to publish a revised code of conduct, called the Drone Code.
The rules say the devices must not be flown above 400ft (120m), in areas where you cannot see them, near aircraft, airports or airfields, within 150ft (50m) of people or property, over crowds and built-up areas or within 500ft (150m) horizontally of crowds and built-up areas.
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