Photo credit: BBC
United Kingdom’s second largest airport, Gatwick has been closed for the second day due to the presence of a rogue drone flying in the vicinity of the airport. Do the Indian airports have a contingency plan? Busy airports like Mumbai and Delhi with a vast geographical area and airspace do not have the capability to detect and capture rogue drones. The impact of an airport closure on thousands of traveling public and economy is unimaginable.
Remotely piloted aircraft system, also called as drone is now very common and is classified as per the weight category, from nano(<250gms) to large(<150kgs). Birds also habitat the skies and pose a safety risk to aircrafts sharing their skies. Indian airports have recorded 4.97 bird strikes per 10,000 aircraft movements in 2017 as per DGCA data. The US airforce suffers about USD 33 million losses per year due to bird strikes. Birds strike hazard is one of the top aviation safety concern for India and other countries.
The reason why drones have a higher level of risk is because, unlike birds which have a flight safety concern from the collision and damage, drones can also pose a potential security hazard. Drones in the large category can carry payloads which can be unsettling for the security agencies.
Impact of drone colliding with an aircraft wing
Photo credit: University of Dayton
The regulations do not permit drone flights within 5 miles of the airport perimeter and the operator manning the drones can be prosecuted under sections of IPC 287, 336, 337, 338 and other sections. The main issue is of detection, capture and enforcement.
It’s the second day of the busy season at Gatwick airport and neither the drone which has caused the shut down has still not been captured nor the operator. As seen in the past, the promulgation of a rule is the first step and may be a deterrent but it alone cannot control the activity.
We need to understand that rogue drone activity is a world wide menace. It takes away the contributions of the technology to the society. There is a need to sensitise the citizens to act responsibly and show them the repercussions of their actions of operating the drones in violation of the rules. A behaviour change is the best and long lasting means of compliance with regulations and towards other citizens who have plans and invested in travel. The sheer size of India and the airspace is impossible to manage for drone activity.
Detection of drones is the second step. There has to be a means of detecting and expeditious reporting of the presence of a rogue drone. An example, if a student living under the approach path of the aircraft in Vasant Kunj or Dwarka in New Delhi sights a drone flying, whom does the student call, needless to sat that the student must be educated regarding the rules. Within the airport, unexpected objects will not be detected due to human bias, because we are not actively looking for it. There are no radars deployed at the airports, like the avian bird radar, which have the capability of detecting objects as small as drones.
If a drones is sighted, the next step would be to capture it or the operator. Some countries have deployed birds like the eagle which has been trained to use their superior sight and attack capability to capture drones. Other means are drones attached with nets and shooting the down with weapons made for that purpose. In fact airports like Singapore Changi have been using Eagles to scare other birds to keep the airport and vicinity bird free.
Photo credit: Israel defense
Drone dome is an effective system to provide defense to the airspace from the risks associated with rogue drones. It is used to detect, track and neutralize drones 24X7 and all weather.
If a drone is captured, no enforcement action can be taken against an unregistered drone. We comeback to the beginning where I had emphasised that we need to invest in behaviour modification, which pays back in the long run.
I would urge the regulator, operator and general public to talk about this issue through media and public interaction to generate an awareness of the seriousness of the issue and the repercussion in terms of damage to aircraft and other safety/security issues associated with it. A human behaviour modification is the long term solution for enhancing safety and security.