Tag Archives: Airprox

The eagle has landed – a bald drone story or an important pointer on drone control?

The recent story that the Metropolitan Police are considering trialling/ will use (depending on the source read) eagles to control miscreant drone use raises some important and interesting questions over civil drone use policy in the UK.

I have to admit when I read the story of eagles being used to capture drones I had to do a quick check on the date to make sure it was not April 1st. But the video released alongside the story clearly shows that an eagle can be trained to catch a small drone and bring it back down to earth without injuring itself, although whether that would be possible to do so safely outside of controlled conditions, with larger machines is questionable.

The fact that the Metropolitan Police are willing to consider such a possibility highlights a very serious message – as things stand it is not possible to adequately prevent drone misuse, and as such anything will be considered.

There continues to be a lot of talk about the need for more drone regulation. But on what basis can more regulation be justified when it appears so difficult to enforce existing regulations?

So we need to ask in reality if there a problem and what is the extent of it if there is, and can new regulations play any meaningful part in alleviating drone related problems? One of the big fears surrounding drone use is they could bring down a manned aircraft if a drone gets sucked into an aircraft engine. The Airprox Board which investigates near misses between aircraft in UK skies, has released reports of 19 near misses between drones and manned aircraft in 2015. In all 19 cases it was not possible to identify the pilot of the drone. One of the near misses occurred on the 22nd September when a Boeing 777 which had taken off from Heathrow Airport and was flying at 2000 feet over the Houses of Parliament had a drone fly within 25 metres of it. The investigation found that avoidance action by the plane had not been possible and the risk of collision between the Boeing and drone was high.

Another major area of concern relates to the surveillance potential that is made possible via drone technology use. Whilst we have applicable data protection and privacy laws, again there is this problematic question of enforcement.

It is important however to recognise that surveillance can be used in both negative and positive ways. It may be visualised that the recent floods in Northern England and Scotland provided an ideal type of situation by which the benefits of drone technology might be clearly seen, by for example enabling the identification of those in peril more quickly, assessing the impact on key infrastructure, and the possibility of flying rapid emergency supplies to those cut off.

Recently published research by a team from the University of Zurich has looked into ways that drones may be used in a cheap and effective way to help in the search and rescue of missing people, as in the forests and mountains of Switzerland around a thousand people annually go missing. The researchers have developed artificial intelligence that enables drones to automatically identify and follow man made trails. Whilst this work may save lives, it is of course a short journey to envisage how such technological developments could be used in a negative, subversive way, both by governments and criminals.

The UK Government who are currently consulting on the civil use of drones in order to develop future policy, are acutely aware of the risk of over burdening the developing civil drone industry with additional regulations. The U.S. and Ireland have both chosen as part of their drone control strategies to go down the registration route, but this by itself cannot directly identify drone misuse. Whilst eagle trainers may hope they can play a part in drone control, technology is going to be the real bird of prey in this respect, and if there are to be new regulations then a possible development may be in the provision of legally binding requirements on drone manufacturers to include control technologies within their products; so for example the inclusion of technology that enables an external identification of the drone to be achievable, and blocking technology preventing the drone from flying in unauthorised airspace as part of the software of the machine.

 

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Drone registration – the positives and the challenges that remain

The United States and Ireland are both shortly to announce the rules of their compulsory drone registration schemes for leisure drone users. Both countries are seeking to get a registration scheme up and running for the Christmas period when large numbers of new drones are expected to be bought. For the U.S. concerns over the rapidly increasing numbers of drones seen in proximity to manned aircraft has led to a need to quickly identify potential solutions, with registration being an option that is now being taken up. The UK experience of near misses this year highlights the problems for the regulatory authorities. To date this year, Airprox, the body who investigate near misses between aircraft in the UK, has investigated 12 near misses between drones that have involved drones, and in every instance the drone and its flyer could not be identified.

The Expert Group tasked by the US Federal Aviation Administration to recommend proposals for the new US drone registration process have reported back and the FAA are now considering their recommendations and other comments they have received. From the details that have been released it has been recommended that the American scheme will require those flying drones weighing 250 grams or more will have to register on the FAA run database, in contrast to the Irish scheme which appears to be set at a weight of 1 kg or more for registration to be required.

The American Expert Group recommendations would only require a single registration to be made even if a person owns more than 1 drone, with the ID number that is given out at registration having to be displayed on all drones owned by the person registering. Registration under the American scheme will be for the drone owner to do either via the internet or smartphone app.

These are the basic details we have, but is it going to be worthwhile? Obviously it will provide a greater possibility for the regulatory authorities being able to identify those who have violated the applicable flying rules, but it should not be seen as a magic solution for everything. There will remain some serious issues

My personal view is that anything that might focus the minds of the leisure drone flyer in terms of flying their drones safely within the rules, has got to be a positive thing.

Whilst identification might be made easier when reports of drone mis-use are made, much will depend on the precise circumstances in each individual case. If a drone has left the area after allegedly violating air rules, whilst the authorities will have details of who owns drones in a particular area, and have a starting point by which to identify who the flyer may have been, there are likely to remain both resource and evidential problems. How much time and effort will the police use in trying to track down a particular drone and its flyer? A registration scheme of course works best when the drone remains at the scene, for example when it has crashed.

The American Group of experts have it is reported recommended that it will be for the drone owner to register after they have bought their drone. Obviously, there will be large numbers of existing drone owners who will now need to register, but it seems to me a weakness going down this route as there would seem to be the risk that a drone owner simply does not get round to registering. Why not have the registration process as part of the actual purchase? The answer in the US case may be due to those who were on their 25 group expert panel; 5 of whom clearly represented retail interests, with strangely Amazon allowed two representatives. It would seem that their fear was that if the registration process was tied into the purchase this could impact on the sales process and actual sales made by the retail companies.

Another potential issue for states who may look to go down the registration process is who will manage and pay for the registration system? With so many recent examples of personal information being taken from databases there is also now the ever present concern over data security.

It is likely that many countries will watch the U.S. and Irish schemes with interest, and follow suit if they are achieving tangible results.