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Explosion in ‘near encounters’ between aircraft and drones

written by Adam Thorn | April 30, 2020

A file image of a drone.
The number of drones in Australia is unknown, but estimates say it could be in the hundreds of thousands. (Australian Aviation archive)

The number of ‘near encounters’ between drones and manned aircraft has doubled in three years, Australian Aviation can reveal.

New figures released by the ATSB show there were 194 such occurrences last year, up from just 87 in 2016.

While one has yet to cause an accident, the numbers will raise concerns that a more dangerous incident in future is inevitable. In Canada in 2017, for instance, a drone hit a commercial aircraft and damaged its wing, while in the UK a device flew directly over the wing of an Airbus 319 coming into land at London Gatwick.

The rise in reported cases is likely due to the explosion in drone ownership, with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau now estimating there are at least 50,000, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of remote piloted crafts in Australia.

Between 2010 and the end of 2019, there were 628 so-called near encounters, 538 of which involved planes and 85 helicopters.


Fortunately, only one of that larger number involved what the ATSB term a “serious incident”, which is an occurrence that has a high probability of becoming an accident.

The news was contained in a comprehensive ATSB report looking at all types of accidents over the last decade.

It also revealed that in 2019 there were 220 aircraft involved in accidents in Australia, with a further 154 involved in serious incidents. There were 35 deaths from 22 fatal accidents – numbers that are consistent with the average across the previous decade.

Between 2010 and 2019, more than 90 per cent of accidents and fatal accidents involved aircraft operating in general aviation and recreational aviation sectors. However, the number of GA and fatal accidents in that period has decreased.

There have been no fatalities in scheduled commercial air transport in Australia since 2005. To read the full report, click here.

Dr Stuart Godley, ATSB director transport safety, said, “Each year, thousands of safety occurrences involving Australian aircraft and foreign registered aircraft operating in Australia are reported to the ATSB.

“This report is part of a series that aims to provide information and statistical data to the aviation industry, manufacturers and policymakers, as well as to the travelling and general public, about these aviation safety occurrences.

“In particular, the data can be used to determine what can be learned to improve transport safety in the aviation sector.”

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Comments (12)

  • Bruce Simpson


    The “damage” to that Canadian flight was little more than scuffed paint. In fact, in the entire history of aviation there has not been a single death attributed to the recreational use of mutlirotor drones. Drone is is in fact the safest branch of aviation bar none.
    Yes, there is a risk (everything in life carries risk) but a study undertaken by the George Mason University in the USA quantified that risk of death or serious injury resulting from the collision between a manned aircraft and a multirotor drone at one incident every 400 years (at present rates of drone/aircraft use).
    Now compare this to the number who die each year due to bad aircraft maintenance, pilot error, poor judgement (in respect to weather, low-flying etc) and you’ll see that intelligent pilots have far greater things to worry about.
    Drones may be a threat to your livelihood but they represent an almost immeasurable threat to your life as a pilot.

    • PB


      Only scuffed paint? If the drone had hit the windshield everyone on that plane, and probably homes and people in them underneath, would have died.
      Reports of drones in their airspace from pilots flying into Los Angeles and New York are frequent – when a collision occurs and hundreds die, will you have an excuse then? Perhaps you will suggest that Boeing and Airbus should have had stronger windshields?
      Let’s be clear – drones are toys. The energy use is ten times that of a surface delivery van. There is little justification for drones in metro areas since they can’t carry people and they are inefficient when it comes to deliveries.

  • Danny


    That is all well and good but some tough questions need to be asked.

    Where are the dashcams showing that the positive visual ID’s for this to verify the ATSB records here? While we are pondering this here are some fun facts to consider. A 1.3m span RC fixed wing aerobatic plane you are not going to see from a 1 km out. Also a DJI hobbyist/recreational drone doesn’t have either the endurance or performance to sustain 400 ft AGL for flight times over 5 minutes. Also these hobbyist drones are much smaller then 1.3m span fixed wing aircraft.

    Also what where the bird strikes during this period? Not only are birds the same size as recreational RC aircraft there are a lot more of them.

    I’m not saying this sector doesn’t need reform, but this doesn’t justify CASA/FAA war to regulate model aviation out of existence since this is a key nursery for full sized aviation. However let’s keep this in perspective.

    • Stu Bee


      Hmm… DJI Mavic can easily sustain almost 30mins of flight at 400ft and higher.
      CASA regs are that a Drone pilot may not fly above this height etc etc



    Suggestion for all drones:
    >>high intensity strobe.
    >>licenced and have rego number.
    >>transponder with altitude and rego number display on ATC radar screen or any other police tracking device
    >>not above 500 AGL without permission to do so.
    >>not within 5nm of an aerodrome without permission to do so.
    >>all drone pilots to study and pass drone pilot exam and hold drone pilot licence.
    >>Penalty: 10 years imprisonment and/or $1,000,000 fine.
    >>6 month amnesty to register drone and attend drone licencing centre to study and pass written exam.

    >>>Toy drones restricted to 50m radius range (limiter on transmitter)

    Plus any other already established regulations.

    • Aaron


      That’s a little excessive. Just punish people who are irresponsible and get to close to aircraft not everyone. The idea of policing every part of our society, registering every item we own, getting a licence to do anything, having tracking devices on everything is just downright crazy. It’s people like you who are slowly leading us down the path of an authoritarian society where all our rights are taken away.
      Seriously, people should only be punished for doing something stupid and dangerous. Stop punishing the recreation for the actions of a few.

    • Doug Bright


      Perhaps you should go work with Bill Gates, too, and be among the first to be RFID microchipped to participate in his concept of total global surveillance using a constellation of satellites. Aaron says prety much everything else I was going to say.

      “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

      [Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438 (1928) (dissenting)]”

      ― Louis D. Brandeis

  • Kyle Langford


    I find the existing drone flying rules pretty clear and safe. In conjunction with an airspace app such as OpenSky, a drone pilot can gather enough information as to when, where and how it is safe to fly their drone. I would agree that for those drone pilots unfamiliar with aviation, a course of education is vital to introduce them to the medium they are operating in, the safety requirements and an understanding of aviation human factors, particularly situation awareness. (For a great model for understanding pilot performance see: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Model-for-Assessing-a-Pilots-Performance-MAVIN-2010-used-with-permission-of-the_fig1_313345191).
    Perhaps part of the problem is having drone pilots follow the existing rules, rather than pile on extra restrictive rules that even more drone pilots won’t abide by because it’s just too hard. Let’s not punish the majority who abide by the rules because of the minority who don’t.

  • Mike Jorgensen


    Whilst legally flying BVR (Beyond Visual Range) with a 25kg UAV in Australia, I had a couple of close calls. Despite us being NOTAM’d, and transmitting regularly on various published frequencies, and no radio response was provided. Once by an aircraft based at the same location – which simply regarded us as a toy. Pilots must also take some responsibility for separation and reading NOTAMs.

  • Fred


    You can’t regulate stupidity but drone killing devices are needed at airports.

  • Peter


    No-one is listening!!
    I’m appalled at the lack of government action to eliminate the potential for the Illegal or malicious use of GPS controlled drones.
    Those who wish to downplay the risks from drones are naively assuming they will always be used in a legal and responsible manner. Unfortunately life is not like that… if it were we could also allow ready public access to high powered lasers and hand guns/automatic weapons for that matter.
    The risks are from two areas:
    (1) Amateur flyers blatantly ignoring regulations to capture extreme footage (I recently saw a video taken of New Year fireworks where the drone was above a TV station helicopter – the pilot (an ex-airline captain) assured me it was safe because he had briefly set the camera to horizontal to ensure the drone was higher than the helicopter.
    (2) Terrorism: ask any instrument rated pilot as to where a GPS guided drone might be placed for maximum effect… the answer is deeply concerning. No-one foresaw the risk of terrorists taking flying lessons in order to perpetrate 9/11 either.

    • Bob


      Bit of a necro post but oh well.

      I have a non-gps guided drone, it’s hand built, rather large, probably under the 2kg range, but given it’s all fiberglass and aluminium, not something I’d want to get hit by. I can tell you it has no strobes, it has no concept of altitude limiting, it has not enough smarts to return to home. It’s not controlled by an app, so would not even be registered with a company if something did go array. It is also capable of lifting my canon eos 1000d.

      I can tell you it’s a lot harder to fly than one with GPS. I can tell you it could cause a lot more damage than my dji would. I don’t fly it any more, I used to only fly it over a friends farm, but it’s too scary to be around (crashed into a tree once, took a chunk out of the tree, drone was fine)

      I do take issue with your whataboutism tho, let me rephrase something you said about something that *does* cause more deaths than drones have.

      “`Those who wish to downplay the risks from cars are naively assuming they will always be used in a legal and responsible manner. Unfortunately life is not like that… if it were we could also allow ready public access to high powered lasers and hand guns/automatic weapons for that matter.“`

      Same sort of fear tactics that make it real hard to get gelbalsters, and they’re just biodegradable nerf guns (sure, I get that people are scared of black guns, but make laws that say we have to have them look more like nerf guns. Having said that wouldn’t take much to make a real gun look like a nerf gun… so eh)

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