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Where next when it comes to drone safety?

by Joji Waites Flight Safety Specialist

The festive season is upon us and for many people top of their Christmas list is a drone. However, their existence continues to divide opinion with on the one hand, concerns over the increasing scope for their disruptive use and on the other wonderment at their capability. The rules and regulations governing the operation of drones, their registration and the airspace in which they fly are evolving at a rapid pace, thanks to BALPA’s long running campaign on drone safety. Significant progress has been made towards assuring the safety of other airspace users and people on the ground with strengthened enforcement powers and counter drone capability in the pipeline. However, there is still much work to do to address ongoing safety concerns and to reduce the risk of a drone-induced accident to an acceptable level. So, what does BALPA see as the main priorities?

Resilience of aircraft to drone strikes and effects of wake turbulence

As the number of drones in use continues to rise, and with some operators choosing to deliberately fly in close vicinity of aircraft, the risk of a collision could increase. It is known through a joint study, conducted by BALPA, the Department for Transport and the Military Aviation Authority, which investigated the effects of a drone colliding with aircraft windscreens and helicopter tail rotors, that due to their hard and dense material nature, a drone would cause more severe damage than an equivalent collision with a bird. There needs to be formal aircraft certification requirements governing drone strikes, particularly for engine ingestion and cockpit windscreens. The effect of an aircraft’s wake on a drone’s ability to maintain a controlled flight path and indeed its structural integrity also require serious thought. Considering that a business jet following closely behind a large airliner on the approach can be flipped over, the consequences for a drone are clear to imagine with a real risk to the safety of people on the ground. There needs to be appropriate wake turbulence separation standards.

Electronic conspicuity and registration

In terms of registration of drones and education of drone users, BALPA’s long running campaign to bring about change has seen some results. In November 2019 laws came in to force that mean anyone responsible for a drone or unmanned aircraft (including model aircraft) weighing between 250g and 20kg needs to register as an operator. The cost for this is £9 renewable annually. BALPA would like to see this extended further to the registration of individual drones, not just the operator.
Anyone flying a drone or unmanned aircraft (including model aircraft) weighing between 250g and 20kg must also take and pass an online education package. This is free and renewable every three years.

But there is still more that BALPA is pushing for. To allow the safe integration of drones into airspace occupied by manned aircraft and to help identify the presence of potentially rogue drones, there needs to be a requirement for drones to be equipped with some form of electronic device that makes them visible and traceable. Such a system needs to be designed, built and certified to recognised and accepted international standards, and be interoperable with existing manned aircraft and air traffic management-based equipment. The system should transmit the identification number and location of the individual drone, as well as the licence number and location of the drone operator. This is an essential requirement of any future unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM) system.

Detect and Avoid (DAA) capability of drones

DAA capability is also essential for the safe integration of drones, especially for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Again, this must be interoperable with technology used by other airspace users. The onus must be placed on the drone to avoid a collision, not the manned aircraft.

Safe separation from helicopter operations

The increase in the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) radius around UK airports from 1km to 5km (as a result of BALPA’s recommendation) is a welcome improvement in mitigating the collision risk for airliners but there remains a vulnerability for helicopter operations. By their nature they tend to operate at low level, often in dense urban areas and in response to emergency situations – all where drones are more likely to be present and are much less resilient to a collision. There needs to be protection for helicopter operations, particularly those carrying out emergency response (for example a temporary FRZ).

This week BALPA will be part of a Westminster eForum policy conference to discuss regulation, airspace management, emerging use cases and sector development for commercial drones in the UK. This is just another example of how BALPA continues to engage with industry, academics, regulators and government bodies to further promote the safety interests of its members and to support the safe evolution of a thriving drone industry.