By The Rules

Philip Marien, IFATCA editor of the Controller magazine, writes about the urgent need for national and international regulations for drone users.

In a recent article in their magazine Transmit, our member association from the UK, GATCO, called for urgent action on drones.

This wasn’t the first time: over one year ago, they challenged their Civil Aviation Authority to take effective action to reduce the risks of drones colliding with aircraft. They are by far not the only ones that have raised their concerns: numerous organisations including BALPA, ACI Europe, the European Cockpit Association, CANSO IATA, IFALPA and IFATCA have done the same.

That the issue has become urgent is clear from the number of reports the UK AIRPROX Board has received. Between November 2015 and October 2016, 56 such events were reported and investigated. In 25 cases, the event was classed as a category ‘A’ event, meaning that there had been a serious risk of collision. Apparently, not even that is sufficient to concern the regulatory authorities.

Those AIRPROX are a stark warning of how serious the issue has become and why governments around the world can no longer close their eyes to the problem.

Everyone seems to agree that regulation is urgently needed if we want to contain the issue. As the number of devices continues to grow, so does the risk of a catastrophic encounter. A large part of the problem is that technology seems to evolve a lot faster than regulation can keep up with.

This isn’t made any easier by the international aspect, where national authorities are looking towards international bodies such as EASA and ICAO to come up with guidance and rules. In Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has made some progress, but it’s clearly not agile enough to contain the issue. At national level, there’s a possible reluctance to be too restrictive, given the boost that drone development has given to research and industry.

Players

It is even being looked at by major players such as Amazon and others to augment their distribution network. And even the entertainment industry is increasingly reliant on relatively cheap drones as an alternative for expensive aerial shots. In many countries, politicians seem fearful of, or may even be under pressure, not to be too prescriptive or restrictive for these emerging industries as it may be a disadvantage against unregulated countries.

Some countries have started to try and control the unbridled use of drones in some way. Ireland has compulsory registration for drones above 1kg and requires a license for drones used for aerial work. Belgium has a licensing scheme for drone pilots, with limitations on what is allowed depending on the type of licence.

In the USA, over 550,000(!) drones were registered just months after the initial proposal was made. While registration alone is obviously not enough, it does make it easier to communicate and educate users if you know who they are. It is clear that as the drone industry – both for professional and private use – grows exponentially, it will become ever more difficult, cumbersome and expensive to try and map the existing user base, let alone educate them.

Other governments rely on raising awareness amongst the general public through untargeted campaigns – which in the past have proven ineffective (e.g. some people still think it’s acceptable or cool to target aircraft with laser pointers). In other cases, they deem that the drone industry itself has a responsibility to prevent their products from being used near airports for example, through socalled geofencing.

While there is some merit in this, especially for more reputable manufacturers, it is clear that it doesn’t seem to apply to the cheaper, generic range of drones that are readily available anywhere. In addition, there seems to be little consensus over which areas should be off limits to drones. An often-heard phrase is that ‘regulation should be proportionate to risk’.

Consequences

While this is true, the consequences of even a small drone flying into the face of a microlight pilot or into the rotors of a small light helicopter leaves little to the imagination. An EASA report concluded that, at altitudes below 10,000 feet, a crash with a drone less than 1.5 kilograms would not result in fatalities, though light injuries to passengers and crew were possible.

At the 2016 European Regional Meeting of IFATCA, it was stated that a collision with a drone may have the kinetic energy five times greater than the impact of a same-sized bird. During a critical phase, like takeoff or landing, it is surely a risk we would want to avoid… Another, growing concern is the possibility of using drones in terrorist activities. Aside from using them for reconnaissance, insurgent groups in Syria and elsewhere have started using off-the-shelf models to deliver explosives.

This only augments the case for strong regulation of drone ownership and limitations to their use… It would obviously be preferable and more effective to contain or control this issue at an international level. But if that is not possible, then surely national authorities shouldn’t sit around and wait for an accident caused by an inexpensive toy… Far more trivial and less dangerous issues have been regulated in the past, helping to make aviation the safest mode of transport. Let’s keep it that way!

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