Drones flying over unchartered skies have become a menace in the UAE. The Aviation authorities in Dubai are at a loss to counter this threat. More than five years ago, the risk that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones, might pose to airliners was not a subject of concern on anyone’s radar. These days, the rapidly increasing number of near-misses is ramping up apprehension in the minds of both pilots and regulators.
In January 2015, air traffic controllers at Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest airports in terms of passenger volumes had to suspend entire operations for almost an hour after several small UASs were seen perilously close to the airport. Ever since, the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi slapped a ban on all drone sales to the public.
The crew of a Republic Airlines flight on approach to New York’s LaGuardia Airport in September 2014 reported passing a drone at 4000 feet, while in July 2015, a US Airways flight, again on approach to LaGuardia Airport reported missing a drone by just a precarious 50 feet, at the same altitude.
In July 2015, the UK Civil Aviation authority, as part of the launch of a new code of awareness for UAS operators, released footages of close calls involving aircraft and miniature vehicles. The UK already has a ‘drone code’ which stipulates limits on maximum distances that drones could be operated, but now, these stipulations are being re-emphasised. These include a maximum altitude at which an UAS could be operated and non-operation of drones near airfields or airports.
Speaking on Business Breakfast radio show on Dubai Eye 103.8 in Dubai recently, Ismail Mohammed Al Blooshi, Assistant Director General of the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority and Joachim Wuilmet, Head of Customer Marketing, Nokia shared their views on how to counter this threat.
Dubai Airport has been shut 3 times already due to drone activity. There is no solution which will work fool proof as per Ismail Mohammed Al Blooshi and even when we have a solution; it should work at least within acceptable norms. The aviation authorities are also working on many ideas, like having controls right at the manufacturing stage, at the time of importing to UAE, distributing within UAE and creating awareness and the last resort would be to bring down the drone if it is malicious.
Joachim said what Nokia is using the internet LTE network and transmitting information to the pilots with control authorities assuming drone pilots as ‘good citizens’. The idea is to build a good regulatory framework. Joachim added “we have no reason to believe that the drones are malicious, because these incidents happen only on certain days a week, mostly Fridays at noon, and there would be very harsh consequences to breaking the law. The controls are now being put in place like registration of the drones with the authorities, just as we cannot have a sim card with proper national identity details.
The future advancement in technology would be basically defining and bringing 5G technology, for which the timeline is year 2020. This technology would help identify object to object and communicate to each other. This could also be linked to public safety organisations. Drone can autonomously decide which direction to go .
Mr.Joachim mentioned, “Geofencing is another technology which is available and we are now talking to the manufacturers of the drones. What needs to be done is to relate this to the UAE ‘no fly’ zones and put the control gate at the time of the input.”
Mr.Ismael mentioned the other area of concern is, damage to public and property in overpopulated areas. “There is the risk of the drone falling on someone’s head or damaging someone’s property”. He also mentioned, the UAE Civil Aviation law is very clear on when and how someone can think on using a drone.
Mr.Joachim says that the present focus is not on ‘rogue’ drones – like drones being operated by people who want to create mischief.
Mr.Ismael confirmed, the authorities are in contact with the enforcement authorities, by increasing patrolling and identifying ‘hot’ zones. Technology solutions are being sought after, like radars which can detect the drones. He went on to say an agreement had been made with the police force that a drone event will be considered as an emergency. They have KPIs – if it is an accident, a helicopter has to reach at a specified time and likewise if it is a not so demanding a situation, there is a different timeline.
With regard to protocols to be followed with regard to safety, Mr.Ismael mentioned an airport is approved by the Civil Aviation authorities and as part of the approval a specific diametrical area is defined which needs to be protected. There are agreements which need to be signed with the municipal authorities, wherein buildings should not be built above a certain height and the buildings should have proper lighting. Drones also come under the same ambit. There are various authorities involved – Air Navigation Service Providers, the Airport authorities, the Police etc. “In each of the emirates, we work with all the stake holders to ensure the right mechanism is put in place, to be able to take the right actions in a timely manner”
Drones can also be used to prevent hackers from invading into systems according to Mr.Joachim. Mr.Ismael added, drones are a risk, but risk is a by-product and there are many ways drones can be put to good use. “Our role is to find ways to accommodate the growth of drones, while maintaining the objectives of safety. Technology advancement is always faster than the controls you put.”
To conclude, part of the UAS problem lies in the fact that drones are still not on anyone’s radar literally. Most of them are so small and made of plastic, they do not register on air traffic control screens, and as such pilots get no warning signals to circumvent collision if at all. The other main problem is the manifold increase in purchase of drones by aviation-savvy ‘hobbyists’.
The fear is that it might take a major accident (God forbid), in which there will be casualities, before people stand to realise how fatal ‘bad’ hobbies can be.