Hazard of drones a mounting concern for Air Corps pilots

Medevac flights in Athlone area may be at risk of collision due to amateur enthusiasts

Drone footage, which helps firefighters detect hotspots, captures the scale of a gorse fire on Dublin's Howth Head. The blaze was later put out by four units of the fire brigade. Video: Dublin Fire Brigade

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Irish Air Corps pilots are becoming increasingly concerned by drone activity around Athlone and their potential to interfere with its air ambulance service.

Medevac flights are operated from its Custume Barracks in Co Westmeath, where the issue of drone use has become more significant with an increase in amateur enthusiasts taking to the skies.

“Where we have a real concern is where we see drones flying in the Athlone area,” said Air Corps pilot Capt Gearóid Ó Briain.

“The helicopter is up multiple times every day and so we are really just concerned for the crews. Because if they are in the air it’s very difficult for them to see a drone and if they are not in the air and they see a drone they can’t take off.”

The Emergency Aeromedical Service is operated by the Air Corps in conjunction with the National Ambulance Service. It is staffed by a flight crew and an advanced paramedic and is credited with significantly reducing “scene to hospital times” in rural Ireland.

While there have been no incidents yet of an air ambulance being grounded as a result, Capt Ó Briain said their pilots are “increasingly concerned” by sightings of the small machines in the air.

Last July airborne efforts to tackle wildfires in Co Wicklow were stood down due to drone activity.

Sightings have also been made around the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, Dublin, where the Air Corps is based.

“Our assumption is that in most cases people may not be aware that they are doing something wrong because they haven’t read the regulations or because they are not aware that the helicopter is operating from [the Athlone barracks],” said Capt Ó Briain.

How high can they fly?

Drones are not permitted to fly above 400ft and manned aircraft do not usually fly below 500ft, creating a buffer zone that generally ensures protections against collisions.

The threat lies around take off and landing but Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) rules prohibit drone use within 5km of any airfields or where it might be a hazard to aircraft.

The latter regulation can pose difficulties in the case of helicopters, however, which often land outside of aerodromes – especially the air ambulance helicopter which can land anywhere at any unspecified time.

“If there was a multiple car pileup on a road and there was someone in the area with a drone, they might put the drone up in the air and we have to encourage people not to do that,” said Capt O Briain.

He added that amateur operators need to ensure they comply with regulations. Commercial drone users are more likely to be in communication with the Air Corps, ensuring accidents do not happen, he said.

According to the IAA, the number of registered drones in Ireland rose from a couple of hundred when the registration process began three years ago to more than 11,000 today.

However, it said there was no database of reported breaches of its regulations.

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