“The need to develop new procedures for drones [RPA] to operate safely in or near controlled airspace is a matter requiring urgent attention in order to ensure air safety and to assure public confidence.” Birmingham Policy Commission on the Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK, 2014.
Two years on, those words are more pertinent/prescient than ever, amid reports of a collision last weekend between a drone and an Airbus A320 as it approached Heathrow Airport.
Yet despite calls for greater regulation from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has adopted a light touch in the regulation of drones. At present only those weighing more than 20kg, or those used for commercial purposes require registration. Instead, the CAA educates users through its Dronecode video advising drone users to use "common sense and fly sensibly” or face possible prosecution.
In the United States, by contrast, where an estimated 700,000 drones were sold last year, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) requires all drones weighing more than half a pound or 227grams, be registered and labelled with an FAA registration number. This followed more than 700 reports of near misses between drones and aircraft, and increased reports of injuries involving hobbyist drones.
The issue up for debate is where does one draw the line? While small drones may bounce off an airliner, as appears to be the case on Sunday, no one knows what impact a larger drone might have in a cockpit collision, or how large a device would need to be to disable an engine. Commercial drones with lithium battery packs could potentially start an engine fire if ingested, yet no research has been done on this so the risks remain unknown.
As the incident at the weekend illustrates, it is hard to prosecute drone users as they tend to remain anonymous. This has prompted some to call for all drones to be registered and even chipped. Larger drones could even be required to be fitted with transponders so their presence could be tracked and monitored. A requirement for third-party insurance might also be helpful.
While some drones have GPS enabled technology to prevent them from being flown near airports and power stations, so-called “geo-fencing”, this is neither required nor tamper proof.
Nor are mid-air collisions the only potential issue raised by this technology. Any drones that can accommodate a camera can also be weaponised to carry a gun or small explosive device and their range and anonymity make them potentially ideal murder weapons or terrorist tools.
It is for this reason that police and militaries are trying to devise defences against the small-drone threat, be that from hobbyists at Heathrow, or terrorists intent on bringing down an airliner from the outside or attacking a crowded stadium from the inside. Various solutions have been suggested and the technology exists to jam their radio frequencies, hack their controls, or shoot them down. The Dutch have even enlisted an Eagle as a drone interceptor while in Japan they are experimenting with larger drones with nets – an odd version of aerial Lacrosse. But to install any of these defences would be expensive and no consensus exists over who should pay for them or where they are needed.
Further research on the use of dones and other aspects of aerial robotics is continuing at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.
Professor David Hastings Dunn is Head of Department of Political Science and International Studies, and was a commissioner and co-author of the Birmingham Policy Commission on the “Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK”