Drones and Aircraft, the term suggests a dangerous mix, but are they really? In the past year, at least five flights have been diverted and disruption at Gatwick airport. This has caused severe inconvenience for thousands of passengers. It took place when a drone flying close to the runway was spotted at the busy international airport. The BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association) have expressed concerns over the presence of RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Their description of the risk defines the risk as a possibility of a “catastrophic crash”.
Drones and aircraft – Airborne risks
Minor collisions on the wing of the plane or parts of the body are unlikely to place a larger aircraft at risk. The real risk is presented if an engine ingests a drone. Planes regularly have to manage the risks presented by birds in flight. However metallic items containing lithium batteries add additional risk concerns to impact. It is always possible that damage will not be contained and fatal fires willspread from the engines.
The risk is increased further should a drone collide with an aircraft windscreen or the rotors of a helicopter. BALPA have expressed the necessity for tests and research to be done. The effects of an incident where collision between drones and aircraft occurs are now a serious issue.
The difference between a bird being sucked into an aircraft engine and mechanical drone being drawn in are significant. Geese have soft tissue that is easily decimated and burned up or expelled. Drones, made up of hard manmade materials are much harder to reduce in the way that organic matter is. As drones are developed and become larger in size the risk to manned aircraft grows accordingly. Every aircraft has its threshold relating to the size of mid-air collision that it can cope with. Even commercial airliners are less likely to handle a collision with a larger drone.
Research being currently conducted at Wichita States National Institute for Aviation Research has indicated that collision comparisons between a drone and a similar sized bird indicate a substantial difference in the risk to manned aircraft.
Airlines pay substantial fines when their flights are delayed. Drones present a significant risk to the scheduled arrivals and departures at any airfield. This being whether it is a large international terminal or a small local airfield. Because of the risks they represent and the inability to contain them naturally, unexpected drone activity means that aircraft can be prevented from take off or have landing delayed. Commercial airlines therefore run the risk of having to pay considerable fines for delays. This because of circumstances that are beyond their control. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that should this problem not be addressed, it will have a direct impact on the cost of flights to the consumer.
For some, it takes some thought about how air traffic affects the environment. However, without modern aircraft technology, we would not be able to perform search and rescue in the way that we can. Medical evacuation uses aircraft in time critical cases particularly following serious accidents and Aircraft are routinely used to combat major fires, perform rescue operations during volcanic eruptions and provide aid during natural and political disasters. There is significant record of the disruption that drones have caused to the use of firefighting aircraft in the Western United States. Situations like these make it more difficult to quantify the risk to human life, but do illustrate the very serious nature of the problems that arise when drone activity goes unregulated or unenforced.
With all the risks presented to everyday life, whether it is commercial transport or a national search and rescue programme, the terrorism risk also comes to mind. Global terrorism has a natural inclination toward seeking out the most vulnerable scenarios. Aircraft have become a target of choice because of the impact that a downed aircraft causes. Drones in terrorist hands are any governments nightmare. Terrorists do not adhere to or comply with local bylaws and legislation when embarking upon an attack. Their primary focus is whether the job they are seeking to complete can be done quickly and efficiently. The approach to intentional sabotage and terror activity surrounding drones has been considerably slow. While it may fall under the cloak of criminal provision, terrorism is far more sinister and risk that will require assessment not only by the police and the military but by the security services too.
The mix of drones and aircraft is clearly one that presents a danger. How much is being done and how quickly varies globally. Countries such as the US and the UK are actively trying to stay ahead of the potential issues, however this is not helpful when UK commercial flights are destined for third world destinations where there is no budget to ameliorate the problems that have been presented. Perhaps it is time for matters surrounding drones to become one that is approached in a concerted manner so that International norms are developed and implemented.