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Heathrow plane in near miss with drone

An unidentified drone came close to hitting a plane as it landed at Heathrow, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has confirmed.

An Airbus A320 pilot reported seeing a helicopter-style drone as the jet was 700 feet off the ground on its approach to the runway at 1416 GMT on 22 July.

The CAA has not identified the airline or how close the drone came to the plane, which can carry 180 people.

It gave the incident an "A" rating, meaning a "serious risk of collision".

This is the highest incident rating the CAA can give.

Investigators were unable to identify the drone, which did not appear on air traffic control radar and disappeared after the encounter.

Crash warning

In May the pilot of an ATR 72 turbo-prop plane reported seeing a helicopter drone only 80 feet away as he approached Southend airport at a height of 1,500 feet.

The incidents have prompted a warning from the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) that the rapid increase in the number of drones operated by amateur enthusiasts now poses "a real risk" to commercial aircraft.

The association's general secretary, Jim McAuslan said drones could cause a repeat of the "Hudson River experience", when a plane was forced to land in water in New York in 2009 after birds were sucked into its engines.

"The risk of a 10 kilogram object hitting a plane is a real one that pilots are very concerned about" he said.

"A small drone could be a risky distraction for a pilot coming into land and cause serious damage if they hit one."

Sales of drones have increased rapidly, with UK sales running at a rate of between 1,000 and 2,000 every month.

They are expected to be very popular as Christmas presents.

They cost as little as £35 for a smaller model - more advanced drones capable of carrying a high definition camera and travelling at 45 miles per hour cost almost £3,000.

Only a very small minority of people operating drones have attended training courses in how to fly them.

'Common sense'

A spokesman for the CAA said it had to depend on people using their common sense when they operated drones.

He said the current level of risk should be "kept in perspective" but warned that breaking laws governing the use of drones could potentially threaten commercial aircraft.

The CAA said it had to depend on people using their common sense when they operated drones

"People using unmanned aircraft need to think, use common sense and take responsibility for them", he said.

"There are rules which have the force of law and have to be followed."

Drones may not be flown higher than 400 feet or further than 500 metres from the operator, and they must not go within 50 metres of people, vehicles or buildings.

There are exclusion zones around airports and the approaches to them for drones weighing more than seven kilograms.

Mr McAuslan said there was an urgent need for rules to be tightened before much larger unmanned cargo planes - potentially the size of a Boeing 737 - took to the skies.

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Why Colleges Want Drones

Schools are requesting to fly the unmanned aircraft for multiple reasons.

One-quarter of drone requests came from colleges and universities, according to the FAA.

Universities across America really like the idea of using drones. 

New data released by the Federal Aviation Administration shows that colleges and universities accounted for 25 percent of more than 900 requests seeking approval to fly drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, in the U.S. The schools use the devices for everything from academics to disaster response, environmental research and agricultural monitoring. Some have even used them to film football practices and games.

[READ: FAA Releases Names of Organizations That Can Fly Drones in the U.S.]

"It's like a gun," says Mark Blanks, manager of Kansas State University's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. "Great technology can be used for good or for bad." 

Kansas State has a fleet of two dozen drones that buzz around the area for both research and academic purposes. The university has offered a bachelor's degree in unmanned aircraft systems flight operations since 2011, Blanks says. Students in the program take courses on basic electronics, piloting, aviation repairs, general psychology and trigonometry, among other subjects.

On the research side, drones can be a cost-efficient and timesaving way to respond to different types of natural disasters and search and rescue missions. 

"Often minutes can be very crucial," Blanks says. 

The aircraft also provide a distinct advantage in endurance and proximity. In rescue missions following devastating tornadoes, like the 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, searches can last for hours on end – a duration that might not be feasible for responders on the ground or typical manned aircraft. Search helicopters also can create noise that distracts rescuers on the ground from hearing and locating survivors. Drones can help in those situations because they can be flown for long periods of time and don't produce the same noise other aircraft do. 

[MORE: This Land Is Your Land, but Is the Air the FAA's Land?]

The University of Colorado-Boulder – which had nearly 30 waiver requests to fly drones, according to the FAA data – has recently used the technology to measure supercell thunderstorms, a specific type of storm that can produce tornadoes, says Brian Argrow, an aerospace engineering professor at the university.

Argrow says meteorologists still don't have a solid understanding of why most supercell thunderstorms don't produce tornadoes – and they can't safely get close enough to the storms to gather data on temperatures, humidity and pressure that could help them find out. That's where drones come in handy. 

"Our motivation is the scientists are now trying to answer big questions about climate, about whether they can develop the capabilities for warning and mitigating for the public to be able to respond to these things," Argrow says. "Our engineering objectives are to develop these systems that can be deployed by us or the scientists to collect these data you cannot get any other way."

Aside from their public safety applications, universities have used unmanned aircraft systems for agricultural monitoring. Schools with larger drones, like the University of California-Davis, can use them for crop dusting. At Kansas State, which focuses more on small aircraft systems, the focus lies more on inspecting crops.

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Just to take lovely pictures though, after Richard Branson invests in 3D Robotics

Richard Branson has invested in 3D Robotics and set the firm’s drones loose over his tropical island Necker.

The hirsute entrepreneur was captured by the drones playing tennis and kitesurfing, while the wee machines also captured “drone’s eye views” of the island.

“It’s amazing to see what a little flying object with a GoPro attached can do; before they came along the alternative was an expensive helicopter and crew,” Branson enthused on the Virgin website.

“I’m really excited about the potential for drones, and I hope this affordable technology will give many more people the chance to see our beautiful planet from such a powerful perspective.”

A short film of the island was tweeted by Branson and posted on the site, shot on 3D Robotics IRIS and X8 drones.

Chris Anderson, chief exec of 3D Robotics, said in a blog post on DIY Drones that Branson was one of his heroes.

“Finally, I can talk about what I did this summer! Richard Branson, one of my heroes both as an entrepreneur and aviation pioneer, is a 3D Robotics investor,” he said.

“Not only is it thrilling to be part of his network, but we also got to bring a fleet of drones to his famed Caribbean island, Necker, to tell the story of his life there from an aerial view.”

For El Reg’s Special Projects Bureau, it’s nice to see these two crazy kids get together. 3D Robotics kindly provided LOHAN with autopilot kit, while Branson is behind Spaceport America, the planned launch point for the spaceplane.

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Local Carlsbad patent attorney Eric Hanscom was recently one of five drone videos selected as winners in a recent DJI contest.


His winning…

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