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Fears Over 'Catastrophic' Drone Incidents At Airports After Heathrow Disruption

Rules around flying drones are being tightened, with aviation authorities awake to the threat of potentially "catastrophic" incidents as more amateur fliers take to the skies with their new toys.

Drones and other remote-controlled aerial vehicles are becoming increasingly popular and less expensive, as more people get the gadgets to take photos or video, or simply for play.

But the booming prevalence of the new -- albeit small -- presence in the skies is creating new headaches for authorities, who have to contend with commercial flights and fears around crime and terrorism.

There are estimated to be 100,000 drones in Australia. (Image AAP/Jim Hollander)

Flights at London's busy Heathrow Airport were delayed after a drone was spotted flying near a runway on Wednesday. It comes just weeks after reports of drones at Gatwick Airport affected more than 1000 flights and 140,000 travellers shortly before Christmas.

The British airports said they will implement military-grade anti-drone technology in order to prevent further such incidents.

READ MORE: Flight Chaos At Heathrow Airport After Drone Sighting, Weeks After Gatwick Shut Down

Experts said no such major disruption incidents had yet occurred at Australian airports, but as drones become more popular, authorities have been spurred into action to weed out potential future problems.

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"There's no question that this is something that not only could happen but has happened in Australia," Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told 10 News First.

"Every year for the last few years, we've seen a significant increase in the number of incidents of drones coming too close to aircraft, the majority in and around Sydney airport. It's a growing problem and we're all going to have to fix it pretty quickly before we see any serious incidents."

A drone was flown over aircraft parking areas at Perth airport last year, which didn't affect flights but caused concern for authorities.

Jennings said that individuals innocently flying their craft too close to planes could cause huge problems, but that there was also the potential for criminals or terrorists to use the remote control vehicles for more nefarious purposes.

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He noted that the Islamic State organisation had used drones for terrorism and warfare purposes in Iraq, and suggested airports or other critical infrastructure could invest in technology to disrupt remote control signals or affect the vehicle's on-board electronics before they got too close.

"There are a variety of risks that are now real because the technology is so widely available," Jennings said.

"We really can't afford to be relaxed or too slow in terms of thinking about suitable counter-measures... more work needs to be done and we're probably not anywhere near as prepared as we should be."

Peter Gibson, of the Commercial Aviation Safety Authority, said his agency had been working to educate new drone pilots about the rules and laws around piloting such aircraft.

He said CASA would soon launch a national registration scheme, including the requirement to complete a short safety course online, and already urged pilots to regularly check online and on a special app -- 'Can I Fly There?' --  to learn new laws or check where it was legal to fly their craft.

"We have engaged a company to do monitoring at all the capital city airports to get a handle on the type of drones and number being flown around the airport, the ones being flown incorrectly and where they are," he told 10 daily.

"The next stage of that, the same equipment will allow us to enforce the rules. We’ll be able to see if someone is flying a drone near an airport, it will allow us to see where it is, see the controller on the ground, usually the serial number of the drone, so we can further put penalty and fines on the person breaking the rules."

Gibson said safety rules were updated on the dronefyier.gov.au website, including that pilots:

  • Can only fly during the day, and must keep their drone within their sights;
  • Cannot fly higher than 120 metres off the ground;
  • Must keep their drone 30 metres away from other people;
  • Cannot fly their drone over crowds of people, including beaches, parks or gatherings;
  • Cannot fly over an area of public safety or emergency, such as a fire, car crash or search effort;
  • Must keep their drone 5.5 kilometres from airports;
  • Cannot record or photograph people without their consent

Penalties range from heavy fines to up to five years jail.

Gibson said the rule about emergency areas was particularly important. Helicopters and other aircraft often called in to help fight fires, medically evacuate injured people, or assist in search efforts, and that drones flying in the area could force real pilots to avoid the area.

Such an incident had occurred recently during a fire in Tasmania, where a helicopter pilot was affected by a drone, Gibson said.

"We’ve been lucky we haven't had a situation like [Heathrow] to date, but it could happen. A mid-air collision of a drone and aircraft will cause damage to the craft... in a small aircraft or helicopter, it could be catastrophic," he said.