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Drone disaster – is it just a matter of time?

Posted 2 May 2017 · Add Comment

Drones, or unmanned air systems (UAS), are starting to make their presence known in the Gulf – and not in a good way. Alan Dron assesses the problem and looks at what can be done to stop a potentially serious accident occurring.

You’re in the left-hand seat of a Boeing 737-800 on final approach to an airport. Everything is nicely lined up, the approach is stabilised, you’re about 1,000 feet above the ground, with 30 degrees of flap, doing 160kts.
Suddenly, your co-pilot utters a sharp exclamation. You glance up and catch a fleeting glimpse of a small object in the 1 o’clock position just in front of your aircraft. A fraction of a second later, there’s a ‘bang!’ and power from the No2 engine starts rolling back. You’ve just ingested a drone.
It’s one of the most basic tenets of airworthiness that a twin-engined passenger aircraft should be able, not only to maintain height but also climb away, should it lose one engine. And pilots train regularly in the simulator for losing one engine at a critical moment. But coping with an incident like that when flying low and slow is no pilot’s idea of a good day at the office.
And – possibly worst-case scenario – what happens if that drone hits not an engine but the flightdeck window? A small UAS is typically twice as heavy as the dead chickens fired at cockpit windows to test their resilience against bird strikes. Would that window hold, or could the quiet concentration of an airliner flightdeck a few seconds away from touchdown be shattered by a smashed window and a sudden blast of air, distracting or even injuring the pilots and potentially causing a catastrophic accident?
Those are the type of issues that pilots and regulatory officials are grappling with as more hobbyists take to the air with a radio-controlled UAS, or drone.
While most drone operators have the necessary common sense not to fly their new toy close to an airfield or airport, others do not. In fact, one of the increasingly common uses of drones is to act as aerial platforms for cameras, to take shots of airliners on final approach from new, ‘exciting’ angles.
This means that, increasingly, those UASs are intruding on to flightpaths and into airspace close to airports.
Dubai International Airport, for example, had to shut down all operations on at least three occasions during 2016 because a drone was spotted in the vicinity. On each occasion, the closure lasted around an hour and resulted in dozens of flights being diverted or delayed.
In a statement following a September incursion, Dubai Airports reminded all UAS operators “that any and all activities are not permitted unless authorised by regulatory authorities and are strictly prohibited in restricted areas including within 5km of any airport or landing area”.
Dubai Airports CEO, Paul Griffiths, has also indicated the need for greater awareness of the problems and better enforcement measures against drone operators who cause disruption.
One of the airlines to have suffered most heavily from the problem is Emirates Airways, whose home base is at Dubai International. Flight diversions and network disruptions due to unauthorised drone activity in the airspace around the airport has cost the carrier millions of dirhams on each occasion, and had an impact on thousands of passengers.
“Flight diversions and extensive holding are costly,” said Adel Al Redha, Emirates’ executive vice-president and chief operations officer.
“Financial aspects aside, there is huge inconvenience to passengers, and also a negative impact on Emirates’ reputation.
“Sending an aircraft to an alternative airport and managing delays to arrivals or departures are not as straightforward as it sounds. There is always a ripple effect on the rest of our hub operations in terms of securing our passengers’ flight connections, ensuring our disrupted customers are cared for, planning the return of aircraft to support other scheduled flights, and a myriad other arrangements to manage the disruption from crew to catering to ground handling.”
The 80-minute closure of airspace around Dubai International on October 29, for example, resulted in the diversion of 22 inbound flights, including 11 operated by Emirates.
Al Redha added: “Safety is always the number one priority in our business. Ensuring safe flight operations by closing the airspace when there is unauthorised drone activity, or other airspace incursions, is the right thing to do. However, the safety risk from unauthorised drone activity, and the resulting disruption to customers and operations, is unacceptable.
“We request the authorities to take strong measures and impose penalties to discourage future occurrences, and also consider implementing drone detectors at the airport.”

In both North America and Europe, close encounters between UAVs and airliners are becoming increasingly common occurrences. Multiple incidents in the UK, for example, have been rated by the UK Airprox Board, which examines such incidents, as being in the highest category of risk for collisions.
Although radio-controlled model aircraft have been used for decades by hobbyists, there is a considerable difference between the people who fly them and the people who buy drones today.
“It’s my strong belief that model aviation enthusiasts are aviators,” said Captain Thomas Mildenberger, the expert on remotely piloted vehicles for the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA). They typically have considerable knowledge of aviation and operate responsibly.
“They know they’re performing something that might be potentially dangerous and have very strict rules. They don’t fly above a certain altitude agreed with the authorities. They are of no concern, basically, as long as they do their hobby as they used to, whereas a typical drone operator just needs a different viewing angle for his photography.”
The new generation of drone operators tend not to have a background knowledge of aviation and use their drones simply as toys. Many have little concern for what may be going on in the skies above them, either through ignorance of aviation or – more dangerously – deliberate disregard for the risks of flying close to airports.
The possible effects of a drone being sucked into the blades of a turbofan are not yet well understood, said Mildenberger. “We need to establish data on drone strikes because it’s all assumptions at the moment. We have experience of bird strikes. Birds being mainly soft, the impact on engines or the tail rotors of helicopters, or windscreens is understood. We need the same data for drones. We’re demanding that some authorities should conduct ‘drone shooting’ against structures to establish the severity of the impacts.
“The drone industry says it’s not dangerous at all, so we need data to establish the risk. We’re trying to establish links with UAS operators’ organisations who are professionals, basically to formulate regulations so they’re not a danger.”
Ironically, somebody who has joined an operators’ organisation is, almost by definition, likely to take their use of UASs seriously and responsibly. It is the unregulated individuals, with no concept of the problems they may cause to commercial or private aviation, who are the main problem.
With this in mind, some regulatory authorities have imposed bans on the use of small drones, at least until proper regulations for their use can be established.
At least 30 nations have established rules for operating small drones, ranging from a complete ban to registering with the authorities and taking proficiency courses. In just one year, for example, 600,000 people in the US signed up to the Federal Aviation Authority’s drone register.
In most countries, there are also common sense rules, such as always keeping the drone within line of sight and maximum altitudes at which they can be operated.
In the UAE, for example, the General Civil Aviation Authority insists that all drones be registered and there are extensive rules for operators, such as a ban on placing cameras on them and operating them below 400ft.
Also on the international front, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in December issued a new unmanned aircraft systems toolkit, which offers information and resources, but which will also act as a platform for the exchange of global best practices, lessons learned and various approaches for regulating UAVs.
“The resources in the toolkit are designed to help UAS operators fly their aircraft safely and responsibly,” said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, president of the ICAO Council. “The importance of recognising that these devices are aircraft and of integrating their use safely with existing manned operations, should not be underestimated.”
Integrating the use of drones – which have been held out as an inexpensive, fast way of delivering packages or medicines, for example – with existing operators is a major task and one that is expected to take some time to achieve.
One possible solution to help de-conflict drones with manned aircraft is to equip the unmanned devices with electronic ‘geo-fencing’, built-in software that senses the drone’s location and will not allow it to be flown in sensitive locations, such as within several kilometres of airports.
While some people have advocated much stronger penalties for those caught operating drones in a dangerous way, the problem is tracking down the controllers on the ground. “It doesn’t make sense to have very hard penalties if you can’t enforce them,” said Mildenberger. “Catching the people responsible is the trick.”
It is a trick that is notoriously difficult to achieve. At present, there are no systems in use that can pinpoint the location of a drone operator. This means that, even if police are sent to the area close to where a drone is operating, they have no real way of tracking down its controller.
Currently, several systems are undergoing trials that can variously jam or take control of drones in the vicinity of airports, with some having the capability of intercepting the line-of-sight commands from the operator, thus pinpointing his position and allowing police to be directed to his position to arrest him.
In the UAE, the GCAA is also understood to be the lead agency in multi-stakeholder teams working in a joint effort to improve awareness, prevention and detection. These involve the GCAA, airports, airlines, the Dubai Police and others.
Requests to the GCAA for more information were not answered.
Whatever solutions are arrived at, they will need to be imposed swiftly in nations around the region and further afield, before that scenario of a drone hitting an airliner at a critical point of its flight plays out for real.

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