drone Gatwick - aviation

Are drones an aviation hazard?

Reiner Hertl
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6 minutes

“Rien ne va plus” – nothing was going anywhere anymore at Gatwick Airport. And this slap bang in the middle of the busy 2018 Christmas period. Due to the repeated sighting of drones in the takeoff and landing corridors, all flight operations had to be stopped, resulting in the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights. This exceptional circumstance triggered further discussions: How dangerous are drones to “sensitive areas”? How can airports be better protected? Are drones an aviation hazard? And how can collisions with aircraft be prevented? WingMag has compiled a report on anti-drone technologies and strategies, drone pilot licences and liability issues. Some duties and responsibilities still require further clarification.

The frequency of interference by drones is constantly rising

In 2017 there were 88 incidents, and in 2018 this had already increased to 158 – this is how often pilots in Germany have reported hindrances to air traffic controllers. The numbers indicate how the issue of quadrocopters in take-off and landing corridors has intensified, and how their sheer number is constantly on the increase. German air traffic control estimates that there will be a total of more than one million drones in Germany by 2020. The meteoric rise in popularity can be seen in the figures for both the private as well as commercial sectors. And then there is use by the military. In all, this is an enormous growth market that also brings with it many jobs. Considerable research is currently being undertaken in the field of urban air mobility, which we reported on previously in this article.

The highest number of drone sightings have been at Frankfurt Airport, followed by Munich. It is necessary to rely on visual sightings because normal radar is unreliable when it comes to detecting drones. There are many technical projects underway to protect air traffic by other means. For example, Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS – the company in charge of air traffic control in Germany) and Deutsche Telekom are working on a way of detecting drones using the mobile communications network – which would require drones to be fitted with a SIM card. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Vodafone are searching for Europe-wide solutions for a protection system. In order to defend against hazardous UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), the global demand for anti-drone systems is similarly on the increase. High-tech extends in many directions; in its breadth and its depth, but also in height …

Net guns and interceptor drones, jammers and interfering transmitters

Tracking, identification and defence technologies are constantly exploring new approaches, with a distinction to be made between passive and active methods, i.e. detection and action. In the case of so-called jammers, the signal between the drone and the remote control is interrupted with an interference signal. The drones then usually, depending on how they are programmed, fly back to their starting point or have to land. The problem with this technology which forces drones to land is that these jammers are capable of interfering with entire frequency bands and are therefore not entirely suitable for protecting airports.

The technologies for hard methods range from shooting drones down, e.g. with water cannons or firearms, to the use of nets and sonic weapons. Another option is to pitch drone against drone, in other words, to use “hunter drones”. As an operation performed in a civil setting, each form of hard defence brings with it its own set of hazards and risks.

A series of tests and experiments are being conducted in an attempt to establish the severity of a collision between a drone and an aircraft.

Risk potential for pilots and passengers

In the same way that birds are capable of damaging the outer wall of an aircraft, a collision with a drone also poses risks. And the subsequent damage can be even more dangerous than the immediate collision damage if parts of the external wall or of the motor or battery of the drone get into the engines. In 2018, research scientists from the University of Dayton Research Institute conducted a simulation of a drone weighing 1,000 grams, i.e. a commonly used quadrocopter, coming into contact with the wing of a small private aircraft at an average cruising speed. The result was not insignificant, and the spar was damaged. The dummy bird launched at the aircraft as a comparison also ripped into the sheet metal, but left the spar intact. Helicopters come off far worse in this respect, as they not only fly at a lower altitude than aircraft, but their rotors also have less protection.

If a collision between an aircraft and a drone can cause more damage than a bird strike, which preventative options are feasible?

Predetermined breaking points in drone design and impact physics

Kevin Poormon from the University of Dayton, who commented on the experiment with the aircraft wing, assumes that drones will continue to increase in size and weight, simply in order to carry greater loads. However, you could “build drones so that they disintegrate more easily on impact, or they are kept below a certain weight,” according to one solution.

Drones grow and shrink with their possibilities

It’s not only the transportation sector, such as parcel services, that are becoming ever more interesting economically. Aerial photography is playing a major role, e.g. for checking pipelines or surveying disaster areas. But the capabilities of drones are also making them a great source of recreational fun and a leisure sport – something which a few WingMag readers certainly also enjoy. Some hobby drones are capable of performing highly complex flight manoeuvres, flying in formation or allowing the pilot to take the drone’s view via FPV glasses using the drone’s camera.

But what about the liability issues when one person’s fun becomes a hazard for others?

Drone licences for amateur pilots and drone insurance

Since October 2017, it has been necessary in Germany for pilots of devices with a take-off weight of 2 kg or more to provide evidence of their technical and legal knowledge. In the same vein as this “drone licence”, identification requirements have also been amended. Every drone with a take-off mass of more than 0.25 kg now has to bear a visible, fireproof plate allowing the drone owner to be clearly identified in the event of damage or loss. German aviation traffic associations are pressing for significantly more stringent regulations in this regard. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it is necessary to have an aviation liability insurance policy for drones above a certain weight.

The statutory regulations also always cover the overflight of and unauthorised intrusion into so-called “sensitive zones” such as airports, crowds of people or energy generation plants.

The German Air Traffic Act (LuftVG) and Air Traffic Regulations (LuftVO): sensitive zones – out of bounds for drones

Drone flights over airports and a surrounding range of 1.5 kilometres are prohibited in Germany and are a punishable offence. As a result of the Gatwick incidents, the no-fly zone in the UK has been extended to five kilometres.

So was it negligence, or a targeted attack with the intention of crippling the air traffic in London? One potential risk of drones is of course that they can potentially also be misused for terrorist or criminal purposes.

The fact of the matter is that drones are relatively cheap – and at the same time are capable of wreaking damage running into millions. As demonstrated by the lost day at the Gatwick transport hub.

In-depth debates on responsibilities, legal amendments and regulations required to make drone traffic safer for aviation traffic were recently held at the Drone Insights convention in Berlin. And these debates continue. The Association of German Commercial Airports (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Verkehrsflughäfen e.V.) has been already campaigning for compulsory drone registration for a long time.

And to conclude with, here is another report for you on the drone alert at Gatwick:

by Reiner Hertl

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