Saturday 22 October 2016

I love drones, but we need to talk about Ireland's safety plans

Published 21/04/2016 | 02:30

A drone in flight
A drone in flight

Do we have an air safety problem with drones? Should they be more tightly regulated?

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Last Sunday's collision between a drone and a British Airways plane at Heathrow has shone a spotlight on the recklessness with which some drone owners display when sending their shop-bought gadgets into the sky.

No-one was injured in the Heathrow incident. But some experts now say that without new controls, it's only a matter of time before a drone hits an engine and causes damage, injury or death.

At this point, I should admit one thing: I am a drone owner. Last month, I stumped up for DJI's Phantom 4 model. So far, I love it: it flies at up to 70km per hour, is capable of operating over 2km away from the controller and has a crystal clear video camera on board.

As a photography device, it's remarkable. It's also great fun.

But I am quite conscious both of the danger and the irritation it could cause, either through a collision, privacy invasion or simply through its irritating buzzing noise. (If you've never heard a drone fly, its aural effect ranges from a really loud mosquito to a flying lawnmower.)

So I've only actually flown mine in north west Mayo, miles away from any aerodrome or built-up town.

As we are increasingly seeing, some drone owners think nothing of flying their devices in populated areas or at altitudes that put them into dangerous proximity with passenger and commercial airplanes.

This week, for example, Aer Lingus said that it has had six 'proximity incidents' with drones in recent times.

In one sense, this is predictable. There is very little in place to stop the flying of drones. While the Irish Aviation Authority was, to its credit, among the first to set up a drone registration scheme, it appears to be mandatory only in theory. The agency may warn of fines, but enforcement appears to be non-existent. When asked, the IAA won't say whether it has pursued any remonstrative action against any drone owner in Ireland to date.

"The IAA has engaged with those who have operated drones unsafely and come to our attention, with each case dealt with on an individual basis and evaluated for its potential impact on safety," an IAA spokesman told me this week.

And in relation to action against dangerous drone flying?

"It is IAA policy not to make public details of individual cases," said the spokesman. "Penalties for the illegal operation of small unmanned aircraft are entirely a matter for the judiciary following prosecution. Any unauthorised use may be referred to An Garda Siochana for investigation."

I checked with An Garda Siochana on this - a spokesman was unable to say whether there has been any investigation or action taken against drone users in Ireland to date.

Translated, no-one tasked with the enforcement of drone regulations is really that bothered about it. This is certainly the case with An Garda Siochana. "Honestly, they have better things to be doing," one source close to the force said to me.

As for the Irish Aviation Authority, it regards itself as having taken a lead on the issue with its drone registry. But it won't discuss drone-related threats to aircraft that airline staff are starting to open up about.

"Aer Lingus can confirm that there have been six incidents to date where our flight crew have seen drones in the proximity of operating aircraft," said a spokesman for Aer Lingus this week. "Four sightings occurred in 2015 and two in 2016. Two sightings were close to Dublin Airport and the others occurred outside of Ireland. All sightings are reported to Air Traffic Control and to the Irish Aviation Authority."

Aer Lingus is reluctant to discuss whether any of these incidents were serious or threatened the safety of passengers in any way. (We presume that they weren't, as the IAA has not reported any dangerous drone-related incidents affecting airline safety.)

But some of its pilots are not as taciturn.

"Incidents of near misses are increasing on weekly and monthly basis," said Mark Prendergast, an Aer Lingus pilot and spokesman for the Irish Airline Pilots Association (Ialpa).

"Hobbyists are just taking these drones out and flying them around without any real awareness of the regulations or adhering to them. They have no formal training but they're interacting in airspace where manned aircraft are operating."

So is there a real problem with drones affecting safety now? If so, what can be done to prevent a serious incident (if one has not already occurred)?

Context is important here. Drones are still a tiny, tiny proportion of recorded safety threats to airline welfare. The IAA's most recent figures specify drone-related incidents at just two for all of 2015. (These, presumably, were the Aer Lingus proximity events near Dublin Airport.)

There is also potential in new systems currently being built to try and regulate drones in a better way. GPS technology and geo-sensing systems are openly being talked about as solutions to prevent drones from flying into restricted airspace.

But so far, it remains talk. There are thousands of drones now in Ireland, with more on the way. If we don't want to read about a horror story involving a drone destroying a plane's engine, we should start to think a little more urgently about what to do about it.

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