Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are no longer an occasional annoyance to airlines. They are becoming an ever present danger to air safety, especially in the vicinity of airports.
Last month’s incident at Auckland airport, where a drone came within five metres of an Air New Zealand B777 as it approached landing from Japan, was close enough to the aircraft for the cockpit crew to fear the device could be sucked into an engine. Fortunately, it was not.
This incident was not an isolated episode. Data reveals that the number of near misses and incidents involving drones around airports is increasing. In China, the Gulf States and elsewhere, hundreds of flights have been cancelled or diverted because of drone activity. It is estimated that millions of drones are being operated across the world.
As more drones fly, permitted because of the grey areas surrounding global drone regulation, it must only be a matter of time before an accident of significance happens.
Drones are easy to acquire and inexpensive. Cost alone is boosting the phenomenal growth rate of drone hobbyists worldwide. Most drone nerds are responsible operators of their spider like crafts, but there are always a few crazies who ruin the game for everyone.
The industry’s regulators have recognized the enormity of the threat unregulated drone flying poses for airlines. It is now critical then for industry regulators to establish global standards for safe drone operations within airports, for MRO and operations support and around airports to ensure safe flying.
In Chengdu in September, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will hold its second Drone Enable conference to identify solutions to drone management in aviation. Issues to be discussed are formulating air traffic rules for drones in available airspace, establishing criteria for drones to be integrated safely with commercial airline operations and agreement on tougher penalties for rogue drone users.
These reckless people must be punished with severe penalties. As well, the industry must mount a global campaign to draw the public’s attention to the dangers of operating drones in restricted airspace. Airlines have access to a captive audience of millions on their flights. Many air passengers would have no idea that flying a drone near an airport could be a threat to air safety. Perhaps the websites of airlines could be the place to start educating the community about responsible drone operations?
1 May 2018