Europe faces up to flight safety threat posed by drones

UAV flyover

3-D Robotics UAV flyover. [TEDx SanDiego/Flickr]

No-drone zones, software to block flights into sensitive areas and registration rules are among proposals from European regulators and aviation experts to ensure growing numbers of drones don’t case dangerous run-ins with passenger aircraft.

Civilian drone use, whether for commercial purposes such as crop surveillance, monitoring of natural disasters, photography or leisure, is rising.

Rising usage has led to growth in reports of near-misses with commercial aircraft, such as when a Lufthansa plane was approaching Warsaw airport last month. The UK’s CAA issued a warning in July, after seven incidents in which drones had flown near planes at different British airports over the last year.

Recognising the threat, the European Commission conceded this year that “drone accidents will happen” and has charged its aviation safety agency arm with developing common rules for operating drones in Europe.

>>Read: Aviation safety body sets out risk-based approach to civil drone use

Aviation concerns focus on smaller drones, operated like model planes and flown for recreation, because their users are often not familiar with the rules of the air.

“The problem is that encounters with drones usually take place during the most critical phases of a flight, such as during take-off or landing when a drone strike could have potentially devastating consequences,” Philip von Schoeppenthau, Secretary General of the European Cockpit Association, said.

Schoeppenthau said drones had the potential to be more dangerous to an aircraft than a bird strike.

“While aircraft engines have been tested against bird strikes, there is no data yet on engine resistance, for example, against a 4 or 5 kilo drone being sucked into an engine,” Schoeppenthau said.

>>Read: Drones need stricter regulation, say pilots

Taking off

Recreational drones, relatively easy to fly thanks to their four rotors, cost as little as $25 (€22) for micro-versions, and up to thousands of dollars for more advanced versions fitted with HD video cameras.

Pilots’ associations and others have called for drones to be fitted with geo-fencing technology, which uses GPS software to stop them straying into certain areas, along with height and distance limits. They also call for registration of drones.

“We need a requirement for registration. That would allow us to identify those abusing the rules and stop them from flying,” Klaus-Dieter Scheurle, head of the DFS German air traffic authority, told Reuters in an interview.

Many cities have no-fly areas for drones already, but that has not stopped people from putting them in the air. In 2015, police have investigated drones over restricted areas in France, such as nuclear power plants, and, across the Atlantic, over the White House.

In much of Berlin, for example, operators need a licence to fly higher than 30 metres. Scheurle said the DFS awarded 125 permits for people seeking to fly drones on the city’s disused Tempelhof airfield on one sunny day, but estimates around eight times as many were actually flying.

The problem is not going to go away. Scheurle expects drones will proliferate as the technology gets cheaper.

“It’s fun to fly them,” he said.

Drones in Europe are currently subject to a patchwork of regulations in each country. The European Commission wants a basic regulatory framework put in place by the end of 2015 and has tasked the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for drafting guidelines.

Under draft rules suggested by the Cologne-based EASA, the lowest risk category would cover low-energy aircraft, including model planes, and would not require any licence. Such drones must be flown within the line of sight, away from areas such as airports and nature reserves and up to an altitude of 150 metres. The highest category would be akin to current regulation for commercial manned aircraft, with multiple certifications required for operation, it said.

>>Read: Aviation safety body sets out risk-based approach to civil drone use

In the European Parliament, a draft report by British MEP Jacqueline Foster (Conservative Party) acknowledges Europe as “the leader in the civilian sector” for drones, compared to the United States' dominance in the military sector. She recommended "a flexible and light-touch approach to regulation, taking into account the international dimension.”

If approved in Parliament committee, the Foster report will go on to a plenary vote in October.

>> Read: Europe's first civil drone law gets a boost in Parliament

  • Sept. 2015: Foster report to be voted on in the Parliament's Transport and Tourism Committee
  • Oct. 2015: Possible plenary vote on Foster report
  • By Dec. 2015: Commission expected to present a draft law for the lowest-risk category drones
  • By 2016: Businesses expected to operate low-risk category drones across the EU

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