Drones given as presents this Christmas could hit power lines causing blackouts and huge disruption to the national electricity network, energy firms have warned.
Unmanned aerial vehicles were a popular gift – prompting energy companies to warn amateur pilots to steer clear of power lines and electricity substations.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) requires that drones should not be flown within 150 metres of built-up areas or within 50 metres of any building. But the increasing affordability of small drones, which can cost as little as £50, has led to fears that inexperienced and unqualified operators could accidentally damage vital infrastructure.
Rodney Grubb, head of operations at Scottish and Southern Hydro Electric Power Distribution said: “The model planes and drones that are on the market nowadays are really powerful and can fly really fast and high. If one of them strikes a power line or crashes into a substation, it can potentially damage an important piece of equipment and cause a power cut, or even serious injury to the pilot.
“If you’ve been given a drone or a model helicopter for Christmas, we want you to enjoy it in a safe environment where there is no risk of hitting power lines or substations.”
Drones operated by professional pilots licensed by the CAA have been used commercially by energy companies for several years to inspect power lines and plants, but the firms now fear that the relative affordability of the advanced technology could lead to blackouts.
Drones can legally be flown by members of the public without CAA permission or insurance, though they must adhere to CAA guidelines. Commercial operators must apply for a licence.
Although many drones are little more advanced than remote-control planes, others, such as the DJI Phantom Quadcopter – which sells for £389.99 at the high-street store Maplin – are capable of prolonged flight. Some drones available for the public to buy online can reach heights of up to 2,000 feet.
This has forced regulators to warn that drone pilots who fly them dangerously could face prosecution. Their decision was triggered by an incident at Heathrow airport last month, when a drone came within 20 feet of a passenger plane as it was about to land.
The warnings from power operators and the CAA came after a senior police offer warned a House of Lords committee investigating drone use that the unmanned vehicles were “undoubtedly” being used to harass people.
In November Chief Inspector Nick Aldworth of the Metropolitan Police, who heads a national taskforce looking at drone use, told the House of Lords that the popularity of drones this Christmas could make it difficult for police to enforce drone regulations.
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