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It’s no surprise to anyone working in aviation that the growing use of drones has caused an upsurge in near-miss reports and increased the risk of disrupting or even colliding with air traffic, writes Siete Hamminga.

Able to stay in the air for up to 30 minutes at a time, with quick battery changes, a lone controller or multiple drones in autonomous flight can cause persistent disruption.

Regulations notwithstanding, drones are certainly capable of flight up to 6,000m altitude and up to 8km away from their operator – easily bringing them into the same airspace as passenger aircraft approaching or taking-off at airports.

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Along with recent airport sagas and studies at the University of Dayton Research Institute showing that a drone collision with aircraft is more damaging than the equivalent energy bird strike – a drone fired at 383km/h toward a wing punctured a deep hole through the leading edge and deformed a spar during a simulation – all parties involved are now aware this isn’t something that can be ignored.

When exploring the future of drone threats, specifically at airports, it is crucial to separate two fundamental elements of the conversation; detection versus taking drones out of action.

The vast majority of airports are now in the process of implementing purpose built drone detection systems. However, where we will start to see real change in the coming years will be in the attitudes and future regulation around neutralising drone threats.

In the UK, there are a number of legal constraints around stopping a drone in its tracks. Since July 2018 it’s been illegal to fly a drone above 400ft or within a kilometre of airports – though this has already been deemed inefficient and is being amended to 5km.

It’s also illegal to shoot down any aircraft, including drones, on private property, and being caught could risk prosecution. But these are just the laws in the UK. There is currently no international legal framework that sets out cross-boarder requirements for drone owners or policies for enforcement agencies.

It’s important to note here that the majority of drones are and will be owned by sensible people; or those who either don’t know, or choose to ignore, regulations around airports. These aren’t likely the people who will cause dramatic disruption.

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What’s needed is robust international regulation that enables security enforcement agencies to prevent drone disruptions from those who intentionally choose to cause chaos.

Though no drone borne improvised explosive device has been sighted at an airport yet, the barrier to entry is low; far lower than trying to get a bomb onto an aircraft through airport security.

This critical need for international regulation should also lead to operational discussions. Who does what in a live crisis? What rights do airport management, the police, even pilots themselves, have in these scenarios?

How will the drone, or drones, be neutralised without causing mass collateral damage?

Answers to these questions have to be found to protect aircraft and civilians; but they can only be reached with serious co-operation between all stakeholders involved. However, this challenge has been underestimated by all parties.

Given the very nature of aviation, it’s rightly a cautious industry; but this does mean that it tends to be 20 or so years behind everyone else. Granted, conversations have kicked up a gear since last year’s saga at Gatwick.However, as an industry we cannot wait for another major airport disruption before we start to seriously discuss operational responses and international regulations.

The future of drone threats will look very different if we have robust policies in place and a united industry committed to mitigating them. This won’t be an easy task – but nothing easy was ever worth doing.

• Siete Hamminga, CEO and Founder of Robin Radar


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