Drones club: Keeping the skies safe

Drone club

Better technology and tougher enforcement of the rules is needed for the safe operation of drones

It was great to be able to recently contribute to this piece for The Economist. Read it in full below or by clicking on this link.

THE airspace over London is among the most crowded in the world. The soaring popularity of small unmanned drones has added to the congestion. After several close encounters, drone and plane now appear to have collided. Police are investigating a report that on April 17th a British Airways flight from Geneva was hit on its nose cone by a drone as it approached Heathrow airport. Thankfully there was negligible damage. But stricter enforcement of regulations and better technology are required to prevent more serious accidents.

The scale of the problem is unclear. Sales of drones in Britain and many countries are not counted. The vast majority of them are small. Those the size of a large insect are not much to worry about. But drones of up to 25kg are a graver threat. And the sales trend is upward. America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reckons consumer sales could grow from 1.9m in 2016 to as many as 4.3m by 2020.

Close encounters are also on the ascent. Recently the pilot of a Lufthansa aircraft flying at 1,500 metres reported that a drone passed within 60 metres of his plane as it approached Los Angeles International airport. Britain’s Airprox Board, which collects reports of incidents, found 23 near-misses between drones and aircraft between April and October last year. Of the 582 sightings reported between August 2015 and January 2016, the FAA said that over a third were potentially hazardous.

No one is sure how much damage a drone could do to a jet airliner. Steve Landells of the British Airline Pilots Association says that tests are needed to find out. Passenger jets are designed to survive a bird strike but if several are sucked into the engines the consequences can be serious. Drones may be more dangerous. They have metal components, including lithium-ion batteries, which can explode if damaged. Light aircraft and helicopters might be more vulnerable.

In line of sight

Rules and regulations on operating drones are meant to ensure such worries are moot. In Britain and America drones are not supposed to fly near airports, nor go higher than 150 metres or so. They should be kept in sight by their operators at all times; not doing do so is a criminal offence.

Rules alone will not stop accidents. “You cannot legislate stupidity out of the stupid,” observes Andrew Charlton, an aviation consultant. But stricter enforcement would help. In America, the FAA now requires recreational users to register their drones online. So far over 400,000 have done so. Users are then given an identification number for their craft. Failure to register could mean a fine of up to $250,000. Schemes to help identify drone operators are planned in Europe.

Technology can also keep drones out of trouble. Some dronemakers are installing “geo-fencing” software which programs a drone’s GPS to prevent flights near sites such as airports and nuclear-power stations as well as restricting the speed and height that they can reach. Another method is a “virtual tether”, which in effect puts a drone on an invisible leash to prevent it flying too far from its operator. Plenty of governments want geo-fencing as a condition of sale. But it would not stop the use of drones near moving vehicles, such as air ambulances, that might be a target for journalists or ghouls. Developing ways of putting up an emergency cordon is one idea. No-drone zones can also be employed; one was due to be in force over London during Barack Obama’s visit this week.

Crash-avoidance technology is another area of development. A number of groups are working on small low-powered anti-collision systems, some combining sensors with machine-learning algorithms. Ross Allen, a researcher at Stanford University, recently demonstrated a hovering quadcopter avoiding stationary objects at the same time as it dodged a fencer’s foil.

If rules like drone registration, safety features and more public education would help curb irresponsible consumer behaviour, what of operators of larger commercial drones, such as those used for surveying or deliveries? They are already required to register with aviation authorities in many countries, and in some cases demonstrate their competence on training courses. Professional operators also have a sharper incentive to act responsibly.

There are alternatives to thicker rulebooks. NASA, among others, has a project under way to develop techniques for commercial operators to file flight plans and to track their craft. The drones would also be able to communicate with each other and inform other aircraft and air-traffic controllers of their position. The drones would use highly detailed digital maps, like those being developed for autonomous cars. Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project, says the service would also provide weather information, right down to the microclimates in a specific area.

Neither rules nor technology will stop those intent on deliberately causing harm. Terrorists might use drones to deliver bombs: although the payload is small, even a hand grenade dropped into a crowd would have terrifying consequences. Biological weapons carried as aerosols would be a greater concern. Like any other new technology, drones can be used for bad purposes as well as good. But they might also be used to detect and, one day perhaps, capture or shoot down those released by the bad guys.

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