Global insight

Air safety in a flap over drones

Air safety in a flap over drones

HOW ironic that just a day after the BBC published a report from just one study suggesting the risk of drones to aircraft safety is ‘minimal’, a Lufthansa A380 experienced a near miss in transit to Los Angeles Airport (LAX), writes Thelma Etim.

The incident occurred at about 1.30pm at an altitude of 5,000ft (152 metres) as the unmanned aircraft passed about 200ft (61 metres) over Lufthansa Flight 456, 14 miles (22.5 km) east of LAX, reports say. The crew did not take evasive action and the aircraft landed safely, according to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Predictably, the episode attracted condemnation from those campaigning for stricter controls over drone use in US airspace.

Dianne Feinstein, Senator for California, is unequivocal in her condemnation. “This is one more incident that could have brought down an airliner and it’s completely unacceptable,” she asserts in a statement published on her government website. “A near-miss of 200 feet should serve as a stark reminder of the dangers posed by reckless drone use.”

In June last year, Feinstein introduced the Consumer Drone Safety Act. Some of the provisions within her act have been incorporated into the 2016 FAA Aviation Innovation, Reform and Re-authorisation Act (AIRR), known as the Reauthorisation Bill, and are scheduled to be debated by the US Senate chamber next month.

“If we don’t act now, it’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands,” Feinstein forewarns. “Consumer drones are a new technology; they can fly thousands of feet in the air and jeopardise air travel – but the FAA can only regulate them if they are used for commercial purposes. That loophole must be closed.”

The US aviation authority has been officious and robust in policing the use of small, unmanned aircraft (SUA). Since 15 December last year, US citizens and permanent residents who own/operate drones weighing more than 250g have been required to register them.

Indeed, the authority was expected to have registered more than 400,000 owners last week, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta revealed to a panel poised to discuss the future of drones.

It comes as no surprise that representatives from Amazon Prime Air took part in the debate, held in Austin, Texas last Monday. The online retailer and big air cargo customer has a vested interest, given its plan to deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes, or less, using small drones weighing less than 55 lbs (25kg) in the not so distant future. Amazon believes such deliveries can be executed safely – if the drones operate in “segregated blocks of airspace below 500 feet and away from most manned aviation operations,” espouses a paper the company published last year.

No doubt, other cargo players who seek to follow the trail Amazon is blazing will be watching closely as national and international regulations evolve on the use of drones. The airfreight industry is already undergoing a transformation, as it contends with prolonged flat demand, lowering freight rates, overcapacity and modal shift. Cargo delivered by drones may be one example of the innovation of which the air cargo industry is in dire need, whilst being buffeted by global economic and geopolitical tempests.

So how severe are the risks that drones pose? Well, the sometimes, lethal consequences of birds and other wildlife colliding with aircraft inflight already bear testimony to the severity of the problem. Globally, they collectively killed more than 258 people and destroyed more than 245 aircraft from 1988 to 2014, according to US government figures, publisher Nigel Tomkins warns in his news analysis story.

So it is no wonder academics Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond, authors of the George Mason University study to which the BBC report referred, examined 25 years of FAA data on birds colliding with aircraft. According to their findings, of the 14,314 bird strike incidents that resulted in damage since 1990, 80 per cent were caused by medium to large animals. Dourado and Hammond conclude that only three per cent of the strikes involving small birds – similar to the weight of a drone – resulted in damage compared with 39 per cent of the collisions involving larger birds.

Keeping all of the spinning plates in the air – aviation safety, technological advancement, and the further development of commercial enterprise – is becoming a tricky conundrum for national and global authorities.

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