In recent months, several international hub airports have had to temporarily close their runways to aircraft as a result of drones being observed illegally in local airspace. These unmanned vehicles present a serious threat to aircraft and to the passengers and crew within, but what can be done about it?
One of the countries in which the issue has become particularly pressing is the UK. In January this year, the nation’s biggest and busiest air gateway, London Heathrow International Airport, suspended operations for about an hour following a drone sighting. That incident followed the closure of London Gatwick Airport the previous month in response to reported repeated sightings of drones in local airspace, a suspension of operations that caused disruption to tens of thousands of passengers, numerous airlines and of course the airport itself.
Both occasions led to subsequent criminal investigations (although, as of now, no-one has been prosecuted for an offence relating to the closures), the police having been called to both airports to deal with the threat. Military assistance, including specialist radar technology, was also called in to counter the danger.
It was already against the law in the UK to fly a drone near an airport or airfield boundary. In fact, on 30 May 2018, the UK Government introduced laws that would – when they came into effect on 30 July of that year – restrict drones from flying above 400ft and within 1km of airport boundaries. Owners of drones weighing more than 250g were also required to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the national aviation industry’s regulator and overseer.
However, in the wake of the problems at London Gatwick and Heathrow caused by drone activity, it moved quickly to tighten up the legislation in place concerning members of the public flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, into such areas. The government and the CAA together announced on 20 February this year that new legislation would extend the ‘no-fly’ zone around airport runways to 5km. The new regulations came into force on 13 March.
Work to progress a new Drones Bill was said to be ‘under way’, and the legislation was expected to give police officers powers to stop and search anyone they suspect of using drones “maliciously” within 5km of an airport (or above 400ft). Anyone flying a drone within the vicinity of an airport “should know they are not only acting irresponsibly, but criminally, and could face imprisonment”, said Britain’s transport secretary, Chris Grayling.
The Home Office also confirmed that it is considering how best to protect the full range of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – including testing and evaluating various forms of relevant technology – to counter drones.
Meanwhile, the CAA points out that all unauthorised drone use within 5km of an airport is illegal activity and therefore the responsibility of the police. It confirms that the use of any technology to detect or counter unwanted drones in local airspace is entirely a police decision. “Our role is very much on educating the [drone] consumer rather than enforcement,” a CAA spokesperson explains.
To that end, the CAA’s ‘Dronecode’ provides advice on how individuals can fly a drone safely.
The CAA is not therefore directly involved in this issue, it says. It might offer thoughts on the drone issue to airports as part of its wider remit in relation to such fields as air traffic management (ATM), but only to the extent that ATM would be affected by other challenges such as common fog or (much more uncommon) volcanic ash.
Ofcom, the UK’s regulator for radio and telecommunications (as well as other things), also plays a role in the country’s aviation industry, in terms of such issues as licensing and regulating aircraft communications and navigation aids. Its expertise in radio frequency and blocking crosses over into the realm of the threat posed by drones in and around airport airspace.
Trade representative bodies have their say
A multitude of representative bodies in the UK have also offered their thoughts on the danger of illegal drone flying around airports, and what might be done to alleviate the threat. When the UK extended the no-fly zone around its airports in March this year, Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), the trade association that represents UK airports, observed: “Drones are a great new technology and are likely to bring many benefits to the UK and aviation specifically. To achieve these benefits, we must ensure drones are operated safely and pose no risk or disruption to air traffic and airports.”
She continued: “Having called for an extension to the no-fly zone around airports, the AOA welcomes that from today an extended zone will now be in force. Combined with planned additional powers for the police, these new rules are an important step in the right direction. As partners in the Drone Code, the AOA will support efforts to educate the public on these new rules.”
Dee also pointed to new technology that can help the fight against rogue drones: “An important way to ensure people do not inadvertently break the law is through introducing mandatory geo-fencing technology as soon as possible. This would safeguard critical airspace around airports from accidental drone incursions.
“We believe this is the most effective way to ensure that unsafe drone use does not have major consequences,” she considers.
The extension of the no-fly zone around UK airports also encouraged a response from the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), which is the professional association and registered trade union for British pilots. It said that it “welcomes the change”, believing it to be “one step towards the safe integration of such devices in to UK airspace”.
But BALPA called for further action, including measures to protect helicopters that operate at low levels away from the protected zone around airports and in areas where drones are frequently flown.
It is also urging the Government and regulators to encourage airports to invest in drone detection and disabling measures.
The head of flight safety at BALPA, Rob Hunter, commented in March: “This new legislation, which BALPA campaigned for, is a step towards the safe integration of drones in to UK airspace. But the puzzle isn’t complete just yet and now is not the time to become complacent.
“The Government must ensure it delivers its promised drone registration scheme and looks at protections for helicopters, which operate in similar airspace to drones away from the no-fly zones around airports.
“We hope the Department for Transport will take a similar safety-first approach to looking at this aspect.”
And then, in April, he told Airside: “The year-on-year rise of drone near misses with aircraft is incredibly concerning. A drone coming into contact with an airliner or helicopter could prove disastrous. This is why we’re pleased the Government has made steps to improve the legislation and hopefully curb at least some of the problem.
“Last year saw the highest incident rate yet, at 125 near-misses, although we believe the actual figure could be much higher. This is due to the fact that many drones are fairly small and hard to spot. Our concern is that even if [a drone is] spotted, it is very difficult for a large jet to manoeuvre out of the way to avoid collision, which is why drones need to be kept away from airports.”
Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) declared London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) to be the appropriate body for dealing with illegal drone flying above the capital, while London Gatwick Airport would also comment little on the issue – other than to say that, when it suspended operations in the wake of a number of drone sightings around its airspace in December last year, “Gatwick invested several million pounds to ensure it is equipped to the level provided by the armed forces and this was in place within days of the main drone incident on 19-21 December.”
It added: “This new equipment bolsters the existing detection and safety protocols that the airport already had in place, which were effective in ensuring the safety of our airfield and passengers during the incident.”
But: “The airport will not comment further on the specifics of the anti-drone technology in place.”
Across the pond
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is very clear on the nature of the threat, and where the responsibility lies in meeting the danger. According to the FAA, there is “no question” but that the number of drones in the US is growing. As of 15 March this year, more than 1,000,000 hobbyists – quite a few of whom own multiple drones – had registered with the FAA. And there are at least 340,000 individual drones registered in the US for non-hobbyist commercial and public agency use.
Surely not coincidentally then: “We typically receive more than 100 reports monthly from pilots and others about drones operating near airports. But in the vast majority of reports, the drone operator can’t be identified, so we can’t be sure if the object was a drone, balloon, another aircraft, or something else.”
But, an FAA spokesperson emphasises: “It’s important to note there have been no confirmed collisions between an airliner and a drone.”
Nevertheless, the danger is a real one. In the US, the FAA says: “Violators generally fall into three categories. There are operators who know the regulations, but unintentionally violate the rules. Some operators don’t even realise that there are regulations, and just go out and fly with abandon. And the criminal element is very small.”
The FAA has introduced measures as part of its efforts to mitigate the threat. For example, in accordance with the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, it is now working closely with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to test and evaluate unmanned aircraft detection and mitigation systems prior to deployment.
“Some detection systems may be more rapidly deployed to airports if they have been closely co-ordinated with FAA and do not violate provisions of Titles 18 or 49 of the United States Code,” the FAA points out. “There are substantial legal impediments and significant operational and safety impacts associated with the use of mitigation systems at airports in continuous use. Both section 383 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization law and a DHS-led study in section 1602 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 direct work that must be accomplished prior to deployment of such systems in the nation’s airspace.
“Moreover, Congress would need to provide additional legal authority to permit continuous use of some detection systems and any mitigation systems at airports. As specified in a letter the FAA provided to all airports in July 2018, even detection systems require close FAA co-ordination to deploy in or around an airport environment to ensure there are no safety impacts and operational response protocols are understood.”
Clearly, then, there are numerous regulatory requirements in the US pertaining to the deployment of any physical measures that might down an illegally flown drone, or even to the use of appropriate detection systems on a continuous basis. But it can certainly be done, and the FAA has a critical role here.
Section 383 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 directs the FAA to work with the Department of Defense (DOD), DHS, and other relevant federal departments and agencies to ensure that counter-drone technologies do not adversely impact or interfere with safe airport operations, navigation, air traffic services, or the safe and efficient operation of the National Airspace System.
This section also directed the FAA to develop a plan for certifying, permitting, authorising or allowing the deployment of counter-drone technologies or systems and requires the FAA to test drone hazard detection and mitigation systems at five airports, including one airport that ranks in the top 10 of the FAA’s most recent Passenger Boarding Data.
So who, in the US, would have the actual authority in the case of the last resort of bringing down a drone if it is a danger to aircraft? The FAA confirms: “While Section 1602 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 provides counter-drone authority to DHS and DOJ that may allow an operational response to significant disruptions at airports, it does not allow any entity to conduct steady state (continuous) detection or mitigation operations at US airports.
“The FAA has been a strong supporter of the Administration’s efforts to get legislative relief for our federal security partners from Title 18 and other pertinent statutes so that they may safely deploy counter-drone technology to protect national security.
“However, the agency’s primary focus is to ensure these technologies are deployed in such a way as to minimise adverse impacts on aviation safety, our air traffic system, and other systems that ensure safe and efficient aviation operations, as well as do not disrupt compliant aircraft operations – both manned and unmanned.”
While any mitigation efforts have to jump through some rather high hoops then, there is cause for optimism. “The FAA expects systems enabling the remote identification of drones will significantly contribute to efforts addressing the impacts of non-compliant drone operations on and around airports and other critical infrastructure,” the spokesperson informs.
“Remote identification will allow threat discrimination and law enforcement response by providing information about the operator and his/her current location. The ability to verify and respond to unauthorised operations quickly and accurately will support response, education and enforcement, which we believe will substantially reduce future clueless or careless operations.”
Drones are a menace to airports and can severely impact on their operations but they are an even more direct hazard to aircraft and their passengers on board. The airlines that operate those aircraft also have a very direct stake in overcoming the challenge therefore.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global trade association that represents airlines and their interests, has – it says – been working with its members, international organisations and regulatory bodies to ensure the safe and efficient integration of drones into airspace.
“Our approach is inclusive and holistic, so we’re not only looking at mitigating the irresponsible use of drones in close vicinity of aircraft and airports but also looking at concepts of operations, regulatory framework, and opportunities for innovation that UAS [drones] could unlock,” explains Ruby Sayyed, head of air traffic management advocacy at IATA.
“The problem lies with the irresponsible or unauthorised use of small UAS in close vicinity of aircraft and airport, which pose a threat to the safety and security of aircraft and passengers on board.”
And IATA agrees that the problem appears to be getting worse. “We are seeing an increase in the number of reported occurrences of small drones operated irresponsibly in close proximity of aircraft and airport,” Sayyed confirms.
As a further response to the challenge, IATA has in place an ongoing safety awareness campaign. It is also now looking at how to “drive a holistic analysis for the risks and extent of the impact of a collision of a drone with an aircraft”, Sayyed says. “The risk of a drone collision with an aircraft could be due to impact with the windscreen, the fuselage, or by engine ingestion. In addition, the extent of the damage a drone may cause may be considerable not only because of the impact but also because of the material it is made of,” she points out.
“We are actively promoting awareness of safety within the drone community through messaging, communication, and training courses. IATA also continues to work with regulatory bodies in a harmonised approach to regulations and oversight related to the use of UAS at low altitudes,” she concludes.
Dealing with the threat
Effectively countering the threat from unmanned aerial systems takes a range of equipment and systems that are certainly not cheap. An integrated suite of resources might include not only drone detectors and the means to down the UAS, but also the data that confirms the vehicle is unauthorised and unwanted in that particular airspace.
Thus, for example, in the case of the second suspension of flights through London Gatwick last year, it is believed that calls made to report the presence of drones around the airport might well have actually been references to police drones being flown as part of law enforcement counter-measures.
Systems to register and record authorised aircraft and drones do exist, such as that offered by AirMap, a California-based provider of airspace management infrastructure. It offers technology to support the full range of aviation navigation services, ranging from flight plan filing and geo-fencing to air traffic management (ATM) in its entirety.
What the AirMap platform can do is to isolate potential ‘bad’ actors, because ‘good’ actors can be registered on AirMap and any drone then detected by ground-based sensors at or around an airport can then be checked against the registered, or authorised, flight picture around the gateway.
Ben Marcus, co-founder and chairman of AirMap, says that actively countering any drone is a tactic of last resort – and having an accurate picture to hand of authorised UAS activity around an airport is essential if that option of last resort is to be avoided whenever possible.
AirMap describes its business and its platform as facilitating UTM (UAS traffic management). It can provide “heightened awareness of airspace”, as well as information on the regulations that apply to recreational and professional operators through easy-to-use mobile and web applications.
Its primary customers have in the past been air navigation service providers (ANSPs) or national regulatory bodies, but its UTM Dashboard product is an ideal system for airports looking to maintain a picture of all registered drone activity around their airspace, Marcus says.