Gatwick chaos shows how small drones pose big dangers

The increasing use of the machines is a cause of concern for airports across the world

Flights have been suspended at Britain's second largest airport after several sightings of drones flying near the airfield. Video credit: Andrada Tudor

 

There has been nothing like the Gatwick experience involving drones around Irish airports but, as with other countries around the world, increasing use of the machines is a cause of concern.

Today, there are almost 11,200 drones weighing one kilogram or more registered in Ireland – up from just a few hundred when registration began in 2015. Ireland was the first country to begin keeping count.

This system of monitoring the rise in the number of drones is part of an overall effort by Irish authorities to keep an eye on the sector and foster a culture of safety.

Incidents here are rare, although last July airborne efforts to extinguish fires in Bray, Co Wicklow were briefly stood down after drones were sighted. The same thing happened in Cork Airport in April 2017.

Last month, the Irish Air Corps spoke out about the increasing number of drones spotted in the vicinity of Custume Barracks in Co Westmeath, threatening air ambulance medivac missions.

Drones pose two major dangers for passenger aircraft. Firstly, they are an obvious threat because of the damage they could do to engines. Secondly, because they are so small, they are virtually impossible for pilots to spot and avoid.

Events at Gatwick are not unprecedented. Two years ago, the UK Airprox Board – the agency tasked with enhancing air safety – reported four near-misses involving commercial aircraft in just one month.

In one case, a pilot was able to identify the brand of a drone that came within 100 metres of his aircraft. In 2017, however, Airprox reported that the number of near-misses had jumped to 92.

Regulations

Ireland has been among the pioneers of drone regulations, introducing its Small Unmanned Aircraft (Drones) and Rockets Order in December 2015.

Besides registering, drone-operators in Ireland must not use them where they may prove a hazard to aircraft and stay at least five kilometres away from aerodromes – compared with just one kilometre in the UK.

New European Union rules governing the use of drones are due to come into force, probably next year, although most of the safety issues have already been addressed in Ireland.

Despite the push to bring in strict regulations, however, there are those who believe safety alerts linked to drones are inevitable in Ireland given their continuing rise in popularity.

Damien Doyle, who owns drone firm Copter Shop Ireland which deals primarily with search and rescue, said airborne drones can be located and identified, but the technology has not been installed in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the number of people taking training lessons to use drones properly has fallen as the number of drones sold has jumped. Doyle is unconvinced that regulations alone can deter bad behaviour.

Enforcement

More enforcement is needed, he said. “We have good rules and regulations but the issue we have in this country is that if someone does something illegal, what happens?”

Management at DAA in Dublin Airport said it does not comment on issues of security, while the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said the unauthorised use of drones could be reported to the Garda.

Shooting a drone down is considered risky due to the potential for collateral damage from a miss

Penalties for improper use are a matter for the judiciary following prosecution, said the IIA. It does not have data on reports or prosecutions of incidents, it added.

Few tests have been done on the damage drones can cause. However, UK government advice has pointed out: “It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the likely consequences of 3kg of metal and plastic, including the lithium-polymer battery, hitting a helicopter windshield or, perhaps worse, the tail rotor at 100mph.”

Shooting a drone down, as debated in the Gatwick incident, is considered risky due to the potential for collateral damage from a miss.

Geofencing-technology that blocks aircraft from entering restricted airspace does exist, but not all drone-makers include the feature in their designs. Anyone building their own machine can omit it.

Signal jamming has also been explored as an option to combat rogue drones, as well as even training birds of prey to pick them out of the sky.