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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

UAE looks to combat drone incursions after Gatwick incident

Need for invisible 'geo-fencing' to halt devices in their tracks

The UAE and other governments are looking at enhanced measures to combat the threat after a series of near-misses at home and abroad, senior aviation officials said. Christopher Pike / The National
The UAE and other governments are looking at enhanced measures to combat the threat after a series of near-misses at home and abroad, senior aviation officials said. Christopher Pike / The National

Shooting down drones and using technology to halt them in mid-air are among measures being considered to protect civilian passenger jets.

The UAE and other governments are looking at enhanced ways to combat the threat after a series of near-misses at home and abroad, senior aviation officials said.

The move comes amid continued disruption to the aviation industry, such as on Sunday when a drone flew close to London Gatwick, leading to the shutdown of a runway.

Several British Airways and easyJet flights were among those affected.

“A flying object near any aircraft is considered to be an uncontrolled risk,” Ismail Al Balooshi, assistant director general of safety at the General Civil Aviation Authority, said yesterday.

“The natural action is to shut down the area. In this instance it would be the termination of all flights to and from that specific airport.”

Governments “are looking to technology to help minimise the risk of a collision in airspace”, Mr Al Balooshi said. “This can be done by either physically shooting down a drone or limiting its activity.”

Last year, Dubai International Airport closed its airspace three times – in October, September and June – after drones flew too close. Dozens of flights were diverted.

Geo-fencing, where virtual fences are created around areas of interest, is another way to restrict drones from flying into controlled airspace. The technology allows an administrator to set up triggers so when a drone enters the boundaries an alert is issued.

“Countries want to solve the problem, not create unforeseen challenges,” Mr Al Balooshi said.

“If a drone is to be physically taken down it must have a safe landing, or if high technology is used to control the gadget then it mustn’t interfere with the aviation systems.

“Many countries need to have a robust system in place for this. It’s only a matter of time before it can be applied. We have become much more aware of their possible impact on planes and aircraft.”

This year, the UAE announced measures to make it more difficult to buy a drone. The devices must be registered with the authorities and users must complete a training course. This is intended to ensure only qualified hobbyists and professionals are using the devices.

Fines of up to Dh20,000 for unregistered drone users came into effect in May, but rules are also needed to tackle misuse.

Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research in London, said that “the ease of drone buying and proliferation, along with no accountability by owners, means that there will always be someone irresponsible who’ll take risks”.

“Until there is something in place to register or deter people, drone incursions at airports will continue,” Mr Ahmad said.

“Fines, confiscation and prohibited sales usually are par for the course. But if incidents like what happened in Gatwick are to be reduced, then far more punitive and hurtful policies need to be implemented.”

This could range from “hefty fines running into hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate for the cost of airport disruption and flight diversions, to long jail spells and confiscation of travel rights for a long period”.

“Whatever is introduced it has to be punitive, otherwise drone access is so cheap it wouldn’t be a proper deterrent,” Mr Ahmad said.

In December, the British government proposed tough new measures to restrict who can buy drones, including a mandatory pilot test.

“While the vast majority of drone users are law-abiding and have good intentions, some operators are not aware of the rules or choose to break them, putting public safety, privacy and security at risk,” Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, minister for aviation, said at the time.

Ways to control drones

Countries have been coming up with ways to restrict and monitor the use of non-commercial drones to keep them from trespassing on controlled areas such as airports.

"Drones vary in size and some can be as big as a small city car - so imagine the impact of one hitting an airplane. It's a huge risk, especially when commercial airliners are not designed to make or take sudden evasive manoeuvres like drones can" says Saj Ahmed, chief analyst at London-based StrategicAero Research.

New measures have now been taken to monitor drone activity, Geo-fencing technology is one.

It's a method designed to prevent drones from drifting into banned areas. The technology uses GPS location signals to stop its machines flying close to airports and other restricted zones.

The European commission has recently announced a blueprint to make drone use in low-level airspace safe, secure and environmentally friendly. This process is called “U-Space” – it covers altitudes of up to 150 metres. It is also noteworthy that that UK Civil Aviation Authority recommends drones to be flown at no higher than 400ft. “U-Space” technology will be governed by a system similar to air traffic control management, which will be automated using tools like geo-fencing.

The UAE has drawn serious measures to ensure users register their devices under strict new laws. Authorities have urged that users must obtain approval in advance before flying the drones, non registered drone use in Dubai will result in a fine of up to twenty thousand dirhams under a new resolution approved by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai.

Mr Ahmad suggest that "Hefty fines running into hundreds of thousands of dollars need to compensate for the cost of airport disruption and flight diversions to lengthy jail spells, confiscation of travel rights and use of drones for a lengthy period" must be enforced in order to reduce airport intrusion.