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Drones: A Real Threat to Civil Aviation and Society?

The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is soaring for commercial and military purposes, a trend which is believed to be increasing the risk of terrorist attacks or incidents involving aircraft. So are we allowing our insatiable need for technology to become one of our biggest threats, or are we capable enough of regulating and controlling the power of UAVs to exploit only their positive usage for human development and commercial purposes? Let’s analyse the facts.

Commercial drone sales are said to rise this year by more than 80% from last year’s (2015) figure of $261 million to an estimated of $481 million by the end of 2016. One of the main triggers of this rapid growth is the drastic reduction in price due to the increase in commercial applications including mapping, inspection, film-television, wedding videos, agriculture and the controversial delivery sector.

This drone expansion from military to commercial and in recent years to civilian usage is becoming a real and growing threat to the safety of commercial aviation, as stated by IATA at the Singapore Air show in March 2016. Most of the airlines attending expressed concern over the civilian drones’ activity across the globe, with pilots’ reports of unexpected drones and near-collisions at low altitude around airports increasing dramatically. This situation is the main concern for IATA, as landing and taking off is where the incidents are likely to happen. In the UK alone, there have been already seven serious near-misses at UK Airports, with the latest incident in April 2016 involving a British Airways flight from Geneva with 137 passengers and crew on board. The drone struck the A-320 before landing, being the first case of this magnitude. Aviation authorities worldwide have started first approaches to regulate and control UAVs to avoid a catastrophic crash from happening. Some of the measures implemented are compulsory registration schemes; drones codes, penalties for inappropriate manipulation and flying limitations within determinate locations such as built-in areas and airports.

Nonetheless, another significant concern is the likelihood that commercially available UAVs are used for crime and terrorist attacks, as these have the potential to be converted into flying bombs capable of hitting targets accurately. As seen with an incident last year when a drone circled and landed in front of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she delivered a speech. In another incident a drone was recorded on video delivering illegal drugs to inmates at Wandsworth Prison in London. The report also suggests that from 200 drones analysed, many of them are available on the high street or internet and ‘’could be used as simple, affordable and effective airborne improvised explosive devices or to carry chemical weapons and firearms’’.

While the threat and tension increases, it is now time to introduce ameliorating strategies. From one side IATA is committed and engaged with a number of other stakeholders, including International Civil Aviation Organizations, a number of states, aircraft manufacturers, airlines altogether in collaboration with International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and Airports Council International to regulate and prepare awareness and education materials for all parties involved. On the other side, governments, police, military and security services will be required to introduce countermeasures to reduce the risks; some of the proposed countermeasures are licencing, laser systems, radio frequency jammers and training to the police and military to shoot down hostile drones.

At Brookfield Aviation, as part of our commitment to the industry, we are following closely the development of the situation and will inform our readers of the latest industrial data concerning drones and its regulations, improvement strategies and the impact not only on civil aviation but also on our society.

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