As more and more drones take to the skies there are concerns that some operators are either unaware or choose to ignore the rules governing their use - particularly when flying them close to civil aircraft. BILL READ FRAeS looks at proposals to introduce drone user registration in the UK to reduce the risks of accidents.
On 17 April the pilot of a British Airways Airbus A320 on approach to Heathrow Airport on a flight from Geneva reported that the aircraft had been struck by a drone. The incident was reported to the Metropolitan Police who are currently seeking to find the drone operator - although a Minister has now reported to have said that the object may have been a plastic bag.
Plastic bag or not (and media hype notwithstanding), the incident is significant in again raising the issue of a UAV collision with a large passenger aircraft. With more and more drones being operated by private individuals, the number of incidents involving their misuse is also rising - including near collisions with aircraft. In 2015 the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) reported 40 aircraft near-misses, compared with only nine in 2014. These included two incidents involving Dornier Do328s taking off and landing at Manchester Airport, a Boeing 737 taking off from Stansted, an Embraer 170 flying over London on approach to London City, and two near misses of a Boeing 777 and an Airbus A319 at Heathrow. Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 1,348 drone sightings between November 2014 and January 2016, 11% of which were from large passenger or cargo aircraft.
With great power comes great responsibility
Amazon's drone sales webpage includes a link to the FAA's regulations on their use - a feature which many drone retailers omit.(Amazon)
In recent years, the sales of small off-the-shelf drones has skyrocketed - particularly of camera-carrying quadcopters. Total numbers are hard to estimate but recent figures published by the US Consumer Technology Association estimate that there are now over 1m drones in the US, 0.7m of which were sold in 2015, up from 430,000 in 2014. These numbers are expected to continue to rise in the years to come.
However, when playing with their new toys, what many new drone operators fail to realise is that there are rules to follow. Irresponsible operation may affect others - perhaps even fatally. Should a drone crash into another object or fall onto the ground it could result in serious injury. If it should fall onto a crowd of people or power cables or a railway line, the results could be even more disastrous.
Even worse if what might happen should a drone collide with an aircraft. Just what damage a small drone could do to a large aircraft is not certain, although it is obvious that it would vary depending on the size and speed of the drone and what part of the aircraft was hit - a collision with an engine or a cockpit window being the worst case scenarios. Distraction too, of the pilot(s) at a crucial phase of flight, is also a risk - perhaps more so for GA and helicopter pilots. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) has called for the Department for Transport and the CAA to back research into the possible consequences of a collision.
Another safety issue which has been highlighted is that there is currently no 'protected' frequency band allocated for control links between drone pilots and their aircraft. Some control frequencies are also used for other applications, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and there is a risk that other equipment might adversely affect the control of the UAV. In addition to safety concerns, there are also data protection issues relating to the use of drones to take pictures which may infringe security or private privacy.
Drone operators in the UK must follow the CAA regulations (CAA)
In the UK, current Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations prohibit the use of drones over 20kg except in special areas. However, UAVs under that weight can be flown in the operator's line of sight but must not to be flown higher than 400ft, operated closer than 150m to any congested area or within 50m of any vessel, vehicle or structure that is not in the control of the person in charge of the aircraft. Drone operators must also maintain direct visual contact with the aircraft to monitor its flight and must not operate drones at distances exceeding 500m.
In the US, the FAA summarises the rules for small drone operators as follows:
• Fly below 400 feet altitude.
• Keep your unmanned aircraft in sight at all times.
• Never fly near manned aircraft, especially near airports.
• Never fly over groups of people, stadiums or sporting events.
• Never fly near emergency response efforts.
Rules - What rules?
An example of unsafe drone operation - a still from a recent video posting on YouTube showing images taken from a drone flying over London.
However, although there are rules, not everyone follows them. Many operators of small commercially available drones seem unaware - or choose to ignore - the rules governing their safe use - a particular offender being users who fly photographic quadcopters above crowds of people or too close to buildings or sensitive infrastructure. A report published in 2014 by the University of Birmingham in 2014 (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/research/policycommission/remote-warfare/final-report-october-2014.pdf) commented that current public awareness and observance of the regulations governing drone operations was ‘limited in practice’.
The situation is not helped by a general lack of enforcement of the rules. It is difficult for police and other authorities to prevent illegal or unsafe drone operations when they are unable to do anything to stop the drones being flown and cannot identify either the drone or its operator. In contrast, established and legal operators of commercial UAVs usually aim to be as conspicuous as possible on the ground (hi-viz jackets, marked vans) to reassure the public and authorities that they are flying in a safe, legal manner.
Quick - do something!
From this year, everyone in the US who operates a drone must be registered with the FAA. (FAA)
Even before media frenzy over the reported BA aircraft 'collision', there have been increased calls for better control of drone operators. However, although regulators have busy for some years working on rules which will eventually enable the safe operation of large military or commercial drones in civil airspace, they were not prepared for the sudden emergence of safety risks posed by smaller non-commercial drones flown by private individuals. As a result, there has been little co-ordinated response and different countries have introduced their own regulations.
To tackle the problem of identifying drone operators, one solution has been to require that anyone operating a drone should be put on a register of users so that it is easier to identify both the aircraft and its operator. While such registration is not currently required in the UK, it has already been introduced in a number of other countries. However, the scope of these national regulations varies between countries.
Starting from this year, the US has required all drone operators to be registered. The FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) registry requires all operators of drones weighing between 250g and 25kg, including payloads, to be registered (see http://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/aircraft_registry/). Registrants receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership which includes a unique identification number which must be marked on the UAV. Registration costs $5 and will be valid for three years. Failure to register could result civil penalties of up to $27,500 or criminal penalties of fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years. Drones over 25kg require a more complicated registration procedure.
Russia and Italy have also introduced drone operator registration. The new Russian rules, introduced from 30 March, also cover drones with take-off weights exceeding 250g but require operators to obtain a remote pilot certificate and to submit data on the drone manufacturer country, type, serial number, year of production, engine details, take-off weight and intended use. An identification sign will be attached to each registered UAV.
In April 2014, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) introduced rules governing the commercial use of SAPR (Sistemi di Aeromobili a Pilotaggio Remoto) remotely-piloted drones There are two sets of regulations, one for lighter drones with take-off weights less than 25kg and stricter rules for drones weighing over 25kg. Unless being operated in high risk situations, light drones can be operated based on self-certification filed with ENAC along with some technical documents, while heavy drones require registration and formal certification from ENAC following a technical review of the aircraft. Operators must also have insurance.
Where the Italian regulations differ is the inclusion of not just the drone itself but also its operating system. Under the ENAC rules, every drone must be identified by identical labels applied to both the drone and its operating system. Each drone must be fitted with a transponder while the operating system must be able to let pilots communicate with air traffic controllers.
Other European countries have also introduced their own rules. Germany has introduced the registration of drones above 500g, The Netherlands requires RPAS licenses for UAV pilots, France wants type certificates and Spain UAV training.
In the UK, The House of Lords EU Committee has recommended that the EU should create an online register of drone owners. This would initially be for commercial users but would then be expanded to include private operators. The main aim of the database would be to assist authorities to manage and monitor drone movements but the Committee also recommended that the database could also be accessed by the general public via an app.
The Committee also suggested that the Government should look into such ideas as:
- Programming drones with ‘geo-fencing’ which would prevent them from taking off or flying into high risk areas, such as airports and prisons.
- Clearer guidance on how existing safety rules should be enforced by the police
- The introduction of a kite mark to denote drones that have been classed as safe to use
- Guidance on insurance cover for commercial drone operators
However, not everyone agrees that drone registration is the solution. The CEO of UK aerospace trade association ADS, Paul Everitt, commented said that he would "rather see the regulations that already exist effectively enforced". Everitt added that hobby drone users need to be ‘sensitised’ to the specific dangers of flying their aircraft while more practical measures should be adopted to ensure that laws are being complied with. "There is no point in creating new rules which people continue to ignore," he concluded.
The CAA is campaigning to increase public awareness of the rules governing drone use in the UK. (CAA)
In an attempt to increase public awareness of the safety issues relating to drone operation, the CAA has published a ‘dronecode providing advice on how to fly drones safely (see www.caa.co.uk/droneaware). The Department of Transport (together with the RAeS) is also running a Drones Public Dialogue (http://dronespublicdialogue.co.uk/) involving three sets of public dialogues held between December and February to allow people to discuss drone issues and meet with key experts. Participants agreed that there should be a national register of drone users, together with more advice on safety, including safety leaflets being included with new drones, discounted UAV flight training being included at point of purchase and guidelines for public liability insurance. The results of these meetings will be used as input into a wider public consultation on drones in 2016 which will give people the opportunity to respond on a range of issues relating to drones, including licencing and registration. This material, in turn, will be used to inform a Government strategy to be published in 2016.
The UK has also been looking at other ways to track drone movements. In September, it was announced that the British Government was working with NASA to develop a tracking system which could monitor drones flying below 500ft. Using the cloud-based system drone pilots would able to view real-time information about other nearby flights. NASA anticipates having a working prototype of the system by 2019. However, for the system to work, it would require commercial drone pilots to enter flight details into an online database. How it would cope with non-commercial drone operations is not yet clear.
Monaco is to field the first complete counter-drone system - which includes Aveillant's Gamekeeper 'holographic' radar (Aveillant).
While the creation of a drone operators’ database may help to reduce the risk of accidental collisions with aircraft, there are concerns from security experts that this would not help reduce the risk of drones being operated for illegal activities or even terrorists using drones to cause deliberate accidents. Attention is also being focused on more direct ways to stop drones straying into prohibited areas - including anti-drone defence systems which either jam their communications or even physically remove them from the skies.
As more and more small drones take to the skies, the safety issues posed by their unsafe operation need to be addressed. However, at the same time, over regulation should be avoided and the thousands of legal drone operators in the UK who follow the rules and fly responsibly need to be supported and encouraged. Drones can be used for many innovative and exciting applications not previously thought possible and this new and vibrant industry should not be penalised because of the irresponsible actions of a few.
Whether registration is the answer is not certain but at least it is a step in the right direction.
The RAeS will be hosting a one-day workshop on UAV Registration and Identification on 28 April. For more details see http://www.aerosociety.com/Events/Event-List/2495/Registration-and-Identification-Workshop