Drones v planes – midair tragedy waiting to happen

Article by Geoffrey Thomas, Aviation Editor – The West Australian

Calls for mandatory user registration and severe penalties for irresponsible operators grow as drone sales soar…

Pilots face increasing challenges navigating planes safely — more planes, more bad weather, more birds and now, more out-of-control unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.

The growing numbers are troubling.

While it is now not certain that a British Airways 160-seat A320’s collision with an unknown object on approach to Heathrow Airport recently involved a drone, there have been many other reports of near-misses between planes and unmanned aircraft in the past year.

The rules are clear. Drones cannot be operated above 120m and within 5.5km of an airport unless the operator has a licence and permission and cannot be operated close to a fire and emergency situation.

And Perth is not immune to the problem.

On March 19, 2014 about 9.13am, a 50-seat Skippers Aviation DHC-8-300 was on approach to Perth Airport from Kambalda when 23km from touchdown, at an altitude of 1200m, the crew saw a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft.

The “light”, believed to be an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone), tracked towards the plane and the pilots had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. The object passed just 20m away.

And in 2009 a Recliffe man was lucky to escape jail after he flew a radio-controlled model plane within seconds of crashing into a 160-seat Virgin Blue 737 plane approaching Perth Airport. He was fined about $3000 for the stunt which involved attaching a video camera to the model plane and recording the encounter.

In Australia last year there were 22 incidents and accidents involving drones, with five of those involving encounters with aircraft — double the number for the previous year.

In the 12 months to the end of February, there was a quadrupling of near misses to 40 in Britain, with 21 labelled as a serious risk of collision, according to Britain’s Airprox Board.

And in the US, in a five-month period ending January 31, the US Federal Aviation Administration reported that there were 583 near misses between drones and planes, more than three times the number in 2014.

The US Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College tempers the FAA report, saying there is some duplication but it agrees to 519 incidents, of which 188 or 36.2 per cent were close encounters.

Again, they are troubling numbers as it appears that drone users are ignoring the globally accepted rules of not operating above 120m and within 5.5km of an airport.

What is of great concern, suggests the centre’s report on the FAA numbers, is that “three out of five incidents occurred within 8km of an airport, and nine out of 10 incidents occurred above 120m”.

In 24 incidents, drones came within 15m of a manned aircraft, and in 11 cases the pilots of the aircraft made evasive manoeuvres to avoid a drone. According to the data, 91.9 per cent of the incidents occurred above 120m, with the average altitude 1000m.

These numbers are disturbing but they are likely to get worse as drone sales soar on the back of lower prices and greater capability.

Non-military drones are usually capable of altitudes of up to 2000m and speeds of 80km/h and they are selling in the hundreds of thousands.

The US is one of the few countries that requires registration at a cost of $5 — and 400,000 have been registered on a new FAA site launched in December.

But there are estimated to be 2.5 million in use.

Britain and Australia do not require registration, though both countries have the same basic rules of banning flying at an altitude of above 120m and within 5.5km of an airport.

Regulators concede they have been slow to act and some privately admit the situation is almost out of control.

While regulators around the world are grappling with the new drone phenomenon, responsible manufacturers such as China’s DJI have introduced geofencing technology into its drones to prevent them being flown into hazardous areas.

DJI also has a feature — Geospatial Environment Online — which provides drone users with up-to-date guidance on locations where flights may be restricted by regulations or raised safety or security concerns.

This could include forest fires, major stadium events and VIP travel.

While this works well for the responsible operator, hacks are already available online to work around the restrictions for those who flout the rules.

And that is the problem. Without global mandatory registration for owners and severe penalties, the irresponsible operator will continue to pose a serious threat to aviation.

More and more we are seeing these drones being operated around major airports.

At New York’s JFK airport in January, a JetBlue A320 pilot reported a near miss with a drone at about 2000m, while a Southwest 737 pilot reported one passing just below his plane as it came into land at Baltimore.

In September, a drone came within 20m of a 70-seat EMB170 jet in the skies above the British Houses of Parliament.

Last month the captain of a Lufthansa A380 super jumbo reported that a drone and his plane almost collided as it approached Los Angeles airport.

With air travel set to double over the next 20 years and drones sales climbing 30 per cent a year, tragedies because of reckless operators are almost inevitable.

There are many calls for all drone operators to at least be licensed, with some experts saying that a competency test is essential.

So far regulators have largely dismissed this push, but a tragic loss of a plane would no doubt change that overnight.