Global buzz on the likely mismanagement of 10 million unmanned aircraft
AT SOME point this month the UK government’s Department of Transport will publish the findings of a consultation on how the operations of unmanned aircraft (drones) should be policed.
The subject of this surprisingly non-urgent consultation, which took place between 26 July and September 2018, covers policy proposals for “the safer use of drones,” as well as powers given to the police for enforcement, reveals a pre-announcement.
Crucially, the government advisory will advocate that additional powers will be required by enforcement bodies to penalise the incorrect use of unmanned aircraft, including the possible use of fixed-penalty notices; and unspecified “counter drone technology” system proposals.
But is it all too little, too late? About 140,000 airline passengers who expected to glide in and out of London’s Gatwick Airport – which was shut down for up to three days just before Christmas because of unwarranted drone activity in the airport’s skies – would probably agree, writes Thelma Etim.
Despite the UK’s existing laws barring the flying of drones over airports, about 1,000 passenger flights were affected by the Gatwick incident and the airport – recently sold to French company Vinci for £2.9 billion – has since been forced to spend £5m on new technology to prevent similar incidents, reports say.
Widespread procrastination over the proliferation of unmanned aircraft
It is obvious to the world that, last year, the UK government had no plausible drone action plan in place to tackle the threats they pose to airspace, even though security minister Ben Wallace told the BBC a few days after the Gatwick chaos that the government is now able to deploy “detection systems throughout the UK to combat such threats.”
Whilst the UK is not alone in procrastinating on how to handle the proliferation of drones – new research forecasts the drone market will be worth about US$8,240.2 million by 2026 – other nations around the world appear to be more pro-active.
Switzerland, for example, announced earlier this year that it is in the process of developing the first national drone traffic management system in Europe. Skyguide, the Swiss air navigation service provider, is working with AirMap, a company which creates global airspace management platforms for drones.
A pilot phase got under way last June and the Swiss hope the new system, which is similar to USA’s Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM), will be fully operational next year.
The Swiss, the USA and a few other nations understand both the urgency and the complexity of policing drones.
It is often reported that geo-fencing – the creation of virtual fences around areas or points of interest to keep drones away – could be the answer to minimising the risks they pose.
Nevertheless AISC, a consulting firm which specialisies in the emerging threat posed by small unmanned aircraft, reveals that geo-fencing is neither a simple nor an adequate solution. “The drone will need a reliable navigation system (such as GPS) and autopilot software to create and interact with a fence,” the company warns on its website. “Geo-fencing an area of interest can be substantially more complicated. Blanket geo-fencing of airports and various types of airspace is a terrible idea.”
AISC also reveals there are a number of major issues that may arise in order to correctly operate a geo-fencing system. They include:
- Geo-fencing data must be kept current and reliable. A manufacturer has the responsibility (and liability) of updating data every 90 days or so, whilst the drone user will have to update his/her software or database with [national] airspace changes;
- Geo-fencing data may not include private airports and heliports. It may also miss military operating areas where low altitude flying is common;
- It is very difficult to make sure the autopilot responds properly to every interaction with every fence in the world;
- Geo-fencing cannot be done with manual control drones and DIY autopilots
‘More education must also be given to ensure the public know how to fly drones in a safe and sensible manner’
The European Region Airlines Association (ERA), which promptly called for more “robust and harmonised European Union-wide safety regulations” following the Gatwick fiasco, also acknowledges that geo-fencing is not necessarily a workable solution.
“The use of airport geo-fencing systems which track the trajectory of a drone will go some way to combating this menace, but it is now a priority to toughen laws and create larger no-fly zones around airports,” stresses Montserrat Barriga, director general of the ERA.
“It is clear more education must also be given to ensure the public know how to fly [drones] in a safe and sensible manner. In the meantime, it is imperative that all governments take the necessary steps to expedite the regulation process of drone operations, both commercial and recreational,” the ERA leader states.
Under the auspices of the European Commission’s Single European Sky project, known as SESAR, which was founded in 2004 to reform European air traffic management, some 3,000 experts in Europe and beyond are planning to implement a €multi-million initiative called U-space, to ensure safe and secure drone traffic management.
Bill Goodwin (right), head of legal and policy at AirMap, which is working with the Swiss, predicted that by the end of 2018, there should be about 10 million unmanned aircraft in use across the world – “a 250 per cent increase since 2016.”
“[The Gatwick Airport incident] highlights the importance of ensuring that the airspace infrastructure is in place to connect drone operators to airspace authorities,” Goodwin warns.
“Drone operators need education and tools that are easy to use and embedded in the technology they already have (for example, smartphone, drone, laptop) to know if they are safe to fly in certain areas, and how they can get authorised access to sensitive airspace areas, such as around airports.”
Goodwin has identified four key trends among global regulatory authorities centring on drone use that AirMap expects to increase in 2019. Read his trends in Everything you need to know about drones in 2019
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