Are drones endangering commercial airspace?

After a drone shuts Dubai's airport, is it time regulations were enforced for these flying toys?

Andrew Charlton July 3, 2016

Last month, Dubai International Airport shut its runways for over an hour because an unauthorised drone flew into its airspace.

The rogue UFO was the second such incident for the UAE hub – the world’s busiest – in 18 months, and cost Dubai around AED 250 million.

Such incidents are not exclusive to Dubai. In February this year, a near miss was reported at Charles de Gaulle Airport between an Air France A320 airliner on its final approach and a drone. Luckily, the crew was able to spot it at the last minute, avoiding a potentially nasty collision.

Aviation takes safety very seriously. It has a disciplined and well-understood process for the introduction of new products and innovations. So why are we starting to see more stories of near misses between aircraft and drones around airports? 

There are a number of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, whilst drones can look like aircraft and behave like aircraft, their pedigree is not out of aviation. Much of the energy and enthusiasm we see in this rapidly growing and fast moving space comes from the gaming community, not the aviation community. Gamers, as many parents can attest, are not famous for their respect for their elders.

The second issue is that there are now huge numbers of drones in the market. Walk into any tech store in a UAE mall and you can buy a drone. Indeed, you have a choice.

Their availability and access makes a mockery of the inevitable calls for drones to be banned every time there is an incident. But to mix metaphors, that train has left the station. There is nothing we can do now to stop drones entering the skies. 

Appropriate regulation

Any new rules banning certain behaviour will not work. You cannot legislate the stupidity out of the stupid. Calls for bans have the ring of King Canute about them. At least Canute understood the futility of trying to stop the tide. 

The drone industry does not care. They are getting on with it, right now, retro T-shirts, hipster beards and all using their drones and thinking of ‘awesome’ things they can do with this new technology.

So if not bans, what might work? The first point is to realise that ‘drones’ is a very wide term and includes devices ranging from mechanised mosquitos to platforms to deliver missiles. In the middle is a category known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will be operated on a commercial basis. The first thing we need to do is make sure that we regulate each of those sectors appropriately.

Toys, drones and UAVs

The first group, largely smaller drones, and a huge percentage of the total number of devices sold, are in effect toys. We should regulate them like we do toys and other consumer electrical equipment. We must ensure there is the equivalent of requirements such as no lead paint and no choking hazards that we see with toys, and that the system does not explode when you plug it in as we do with the CE stamp on your mobile phone and your toaster. 

Importantly, we need to ensure that they are programmed to not fly near airports, not to fly in controlled airspace (generally above 150m or 500ft) and to be identifiable. Yes, that may well be a red rag to a hacker, but deliberate acts of civil disobedience are a different issue to idiocy, when attempting to reduce risk. This is what is being proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Large drones, which do operate in controlled airspace and need to interact with other aircraft, are aircraft. They need to be certified and regulated accordingly.

The UAV sector is the commercially interesting group. Commercial operators, if they are to exploit the potential for drones, will need to operate beyond line of sight, delivering packages, conducting precision agricultural missions and so forth. That, according to EASA would require extensive safety case testing and training of staff before being approved. However, it should be pointed out that UAVs are not likely to be the ones that fly near commercial aircraft or commercial airports. Their business interests lie elsewhere.

UAV Traffic Management scheme

NASA, many of the staff of which are rocket scientists, is taking a different, but not inconsistent, tack. It realises that the right approach is not to ban unmanned aerial systems but to find a way to manage the airspace they will mostly operate in effectively. This is new thinking and it cuts across the way the aviation industry has worked to date. 

The NASA’s proposal is for a UAV Traffic Management (UTM) scheme for drones that operate in Class G airspace, the airspace below 150m. That is where the action is. UTM will use existing mobile telephone networks for communication links and federate the rapidly emerging internet-based products for drone flight planning and reporting, and build in no-fly zones and other restrictions to geo-fence locations.

This proposal works with EASA’s proposals. The EASA standards would include geo-fencing limitations. Commercial drones, from where many of the exciting developments and new usages we cannot now start to comprehend will come, would also fit into the UTM concept easily.

Sensible regulatory framework

The drone industry today is rather like the mobile phone industry in about the year 2000. We cannot now start to comprehend where we might end up.

Banning drones would be futile. Now is the time to start to find a sensible regulatory framework that captures the energy and the potential of the sector and allows it to expand and develop safely.

Andrew Charlton is the managing director of Aviation Advocacy.