After the recent near miss at a Canadian airport, we look at the measures that are being taken to rein in reckless and dangerous drone activity around the world
A soaring problem: how the world is tackling the drone problem
As of October this year, there have thankfully been no fatalities or injuries as a result of a drone colliding with a commercial aircraft. However, fears of such an incident taking place run very high. In an industry where safety is paramount, and near misses are meticulously recorded, a drone, or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) would appear to pose an ever-present danger. This idea was bolstered last week, when a drone hit a plane coming in to land at Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec, Canada. The incident had the dubious honour of becoming the world’s first such collision to be officially confirmed, and at a news conference, Canada’s minister of transport, Marc Garneau, expressed great concern. “This should not have happened,” he said. “That drone should not have been there.”
Ever since drone flying became an affordable hobby, the issue of where they should be permitted has become increasingly fraught. A variety of laws have been implemented across the world, from outright bans in India to strict guidelines in countries such as Canada, covering altitude and location – both violated in the Quebec incident. Following a number of temporary closures at Dubai International Airport in the wake of drone activity, the UAE has adopted some of the most stringent measures in the world in order to keep the skies safe, but is the global risk measurable? And is enough being done to combat the threat?
Earlier this summer, a study from the United Kingdom aimed to assess the effect of a drone collision on a commercial aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the heavier drones (of around 4 kilograms) were deemed to be more dangerous, but the study concluded that drones can indeed “cause significantly more damage than birds of equivalent masses”. But, what are the actual chances of such a collision? One study undertaken last year by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia, United States, put the likelihood of a collision causing “an injury or fatality to passengers on board an aircraft” at once every 187 million years of operation. This evidently translates as “highly unlikely”, but it’s difficult to legislate for the stupidity of individuals, and a tiny percentage of drone users have demonstrated themselves to be deeply irresponsible. Jonathan Rupprecht, an American expert in aviation law, divides them into two groups, “how high can it fly” and “I’ll fly it wherever I want”, both of which pose a great danger to aircrafts. Campaigns of the kind that ran in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, to warn of the dangers of daredevil droning may have little effect on those dedicated to causing chaos – last week Californian firefighters were forced to down tools when their efforts were hampered by drone operators, causing the California Highway Patrol to post a furious denouncement on Facebook.
Education is one approach to combating the problem. Back in April, Michael Rudolph, head of aviation regulations and safety at the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) announced mandatory registration along with a “training course” for anyone purchasing a drone; this was followed by a similar announcement by the British government in July, although that was light on specifics. But much irresponsible drone use stems from the knowledge that regardless of stipulated fines or prison terms, punishment is unlikely. The owner of the drone involved in the Quebec incident has not yet been identified; Transport Canada has proposed laws governing the registration of drones, but this is yet another case of technology moving faster than legislation processes can.
In the UAE, in August, the DCAA launched its Sky Commander Tracking Programme, to track flight paths of registered drones. The first of its kind, it currently only covers commercially operated drones, but will expand to hobbyist aircrafts early next year. This system, combined with a mandatory registration programme, would theoretically see no drone unaccounted for. Some drone owners, however, see any form of registration or tracking as an unacceptable violation of privacy and an attack on personal freedom. Back in May, the US Federal Aviation Authority lost a case requiring owners to register their drones, and cases like these make the idea of a single, comprehensive worldwide drone registry – backed earlier this year by the United Nations – look less likely. For the “I’ll fly it wherever I want” group, restrictions are there to be overcome. Geofencing, the inbuilt drone software that’s programmed to prevent drones flying into areas such as airports, can be hacked, disabled and overridden – which was demonstrated in the Quebec incident, where the airport is geofenced as a red “no go” area by drone manufacturers, such as DJI, the market leader.
DJI, which has a 70 per cent market share, recognises the problem and has acted upon it. Earlier this month, it unveiled Aeroscope, a means by which authorities can monitor the company’s drones and act against any infractions. Again, the reaction of many drone owners was one of fury, but others urged them to recognise that these tightened regulations are a direct consequence of irresponsible use.
Errant drones, even if registered and tracked, still pose a threat, as in that moment, there may be no time to beseech the owner to stop what he or she is doing. Last month, UK’s Ministry of Defence announced a £20m (Dh96.8m) spend on an anti-drone system, which can target and destroy consumer-sized drones, and a similar idea was raised in July by Ismail Al Balooshi, assistant director general of safety for the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority. There have been multiple cases in the US of people taking the law into their own hands and using drones for target practice, but one Harvard University researcher described this as a “potentially deadly overreaction” and urged practicing restraint.
Drones have enormous potential. The UAE has showcased this with the annual “Drones For Good” award, offering Dh1m prize money for examples of innovation that show the positive capabilities of drone technology. Tragically, however, such work tends to
be overshadowed by the continued efforts to combat the potentially dangerous behaviour of a small number of hobbyists, and the attempts to save them (and us) from their own poor judgement.