Published on December 18th, 2016 | by Jim Lee


Irish Aviation Authority stress safe use of drones as surge in incidents recorded

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has identified the safe use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – more commonly knowns as drones – as a key priority, as they confirmed that 2016 will be a record year for Irish aviation. The IAA is forecasting that it will safely handle over 1.1 million flights in Irish controlled airspace and at the three State airports for the whole year. With an expected increase in the sales of drones in Ireland this Christmas, the IAA has urged all owners to register drones weighing 1 kg or more, and invest in quality training on how to use the drone safely and avoid potential dangers with aircraft in Irish controlled airspace.

Ralph James, IAA Director of Safety Regulation, said that “With the expected growth in the sales of drones over the Christmas period, the IAA must ensure that drones are used properly and in safe locations. They also need to ensure that they don’t cause harm to people or property, or interfere with other forms of aviation.”

“If you purchase a drone over 1 kg you are required to register it with the IAA and you need to be aware of your responsibilities. You must operate your drone in a safe and responsible manner and in full compliance with the regulations,” he said.

Registration of drones weighing 1 kg or more is a mandatory requirement. Over 6,000 drones and model aircraft have been registered with the IAA over the past year. It is now a major business and according to the European Commission, civil drone technology could account for an estimated 10% of the EU aviation market, within the next 10 years (about €15 billion per year) and create some 150,000 jobs in the EU by 2050. That is if the the expected purchase and usage of drones in Ireland can be compared to Canada, figures taken from First Class Drones | Toronto Drone Services in Ontario Canada. Although Irish regulations are different from those across the pond.

The Irish legislation prohibits users from operating their drones:

  • if it will be a hazard to another aircraft in flight;
  • over an assembly of people;
  • farther than 300m from the operator;
  • within 120m of any person, vessel or structure not under the operator’s control;
  • closer than 5km from an aerodrome;
  • in a negligent or reckless manner so as to endanger life or property of others;
  • over 400ft (120m) above ground level;
  • over urban areas;
  • in civil of military controlled airspace;
  • in restricted areas (e.g. military installations, prisons, etc.);
  • unless the operator has permission from the landowner for take-off and landing.

Readers can find more information on the safe operation of drones on the IAA website here. For those already owning drones, you can register your drone here. However, you must be at least 16 years of age or older and drones operated by those under 16 years of age must be registered by a parent or legal guardian. There is a nominal €5 fee to register.

Drone safety also targeted by new initiative in the UK

Across the water, the issue of drone safety has also been exercising the mind of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It has issued a revised ‘Dronecode’ and launched a new website; in partnership with UK air traffic control body NATS. The Dronecode, a simple set of rules and guidelines established in legislation, which outlines how to fly drones safely, and within the law in the UK, and conveniently hosted on a new dedicated website. This initiative is backed by wide range of leading aviation players, drone retailers and manufacturers as well as the Department for Transport.

The launch of the new Dronecode, follows an industry-first report into user behaviour, attitudes towards, and responsible use of drones. These findings led to the new website and the revised and updated Dronecode. This initiative saw the launch of 400ft Britain during October, a drone photography and videography competition that aims to creatively bring the Dronecode to life, held in partnership with VisitEngland, and offering drone-flying holidays from Phantom Flight School, to the winning entries.

The new Dronecode is for consumer drone use and those using a drone commercially must be licensed and undergo an approved course. On the other hand, drone users must also remember that if they don’t follow the simple rules, they could be prosecuted, and go to prison.

Key findings of the report are:

  • The public agree that drones can be used for ‘worthy’ causes:
  • 61% state that drones would be useful for traffic monitoring and power line inspection
  • 58% agree that drones would be useful for agriculture.
  • 56% state that drones would be useful for emergency health services.
  • 40% say that drones would be useful for donor organ transport.
  • 62% of drone owners state that ‘fun’ is the main reason for having a drone.
  • 69% of owners thought retailers were responsible for drone safety education at point of sale.
  • 36% were made aware of the Dronecode when buying a drone.

To demonstrate the need for a unified approach, the research, which was carried out in collaboration with strategic insight agency Opinium, identified that 91% of the public agreed that adherence to the Dronecode is important. In addition, 39% of drone users had so far heard of it following its launch in 2015. The UK CAA believe that adherence to the Dronecode will address initial public concern identified in the research and help the wider industries that can harness the power of drones for good to grow. These are certainly front of mind with high expectations among the public for agriculture, medical and healthcare use.

Tim Johnson, Policy Director at the CAA said, “Consumer research on this scale into drone use has never been done before and there was a real need from the aviation and drone industries to find out more about this growing sector. The research shows that the public have understandable concerns about reported drone misuse to date, and demonstrate clearly why the current education programme is underway, backed by legal action when appropriate”.

Andrew Sage, at the air traffic control provider NATS, added: “Drones are an incredible, inspiring technology but it’s vital that people are using them safely. With the number of reported drone incidents on the rise, it’s important that people understand their legal obligations and fly safe, having fun whilst ensuring other users of the UK’s airspace aren’t put at risk. We hope that will help to achieve this.”

Drone incidents highlighted in last UK ‘Airprox’ reports

The growing problem of drones coming into conflict with airliners was highlighted in the latest monthly summary from the UK Airprox Board. This is an independent body partly funded by the Civil Aviation Authority and UK Ministry of Defence and their summaries are based on their monthly meeting assessments, the latest being dated 9th November.

The November summary records two serious drone encounters, which took place in the same week as three previously-disclosed incidents involving airliners heading for London Heathrow Airport between the 16th and 18th July. In the first of these incidents on 16th July, an Airbus A320 (airlines are not identified in Airprox reports), passed a quadrotor drone at 5,000 ft. over east London, with separation of 50 ft. vertically and zero feet horizontally. The following day, a similar type drone passed within 100 feet of the wingtip of an A319, on approach to Heathrow’s runway 27R, at an altitude of only 1,300 feet. Vertical separation was not known. The pilots said the drone was stationary, possibly filming airliners on the approach. Finally, on 18th July, what was described as a black UAV measuring an estimated 50 cm in diameter was passed by another A320, on base leg over central London, with a separation of only two metres vertically above the wing and 20 metres horizontally.

In the first of the latest reported incidents, an Embraer 190 pilot reported that during initial climb out from London City Airport, in a right turn passing about 2,700ft, the First Officer (FO) saw what appeared to be a drone, in close proximity to the aircraft. It was described as being in the left 11 o’clock position and slightly above. The incident occurred at around 07:43 on 20th July, while the aircraft was operating under Instrument flight rules (IFR), in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and in receipt of a Radar Control Service from City Radar.

The FO assessed that the drone would not collide if the E190 maintained its turn and rate of climb. The drone passed down the left side of the aircraft. Once the turn was complete and the aircraft level, the Captain informed ATC of the close proximity of the drone. Once safe to do so, both pilots discussed the incident and concluded the best decision was to continue with the flight and complete a safety report. They assessed the risk of collision as ‘Medium’.

Members of the Airprox Board noted that the drone was operating at around 2,600ft and therefore beyond practical Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) conditions. Also, as it was flying within Class A airspace, without the permission of Swanwick ATC, the Board considered that the drone operator had endangered the E190 and its occupants. Therefore, in assessing the cause, the Board agreed that the drone had been flown into conflict with the E190. Turning to the risk, although the incident did not show on the NATS radars, the Board noted that the pilot had estimated the separation to be 30ft vertically and 20 metres horizontally from the aircraft. As they had been in a climbing turn, and as it had not been possible to increase the miss distance other than to maintain the turn which they were left hoping that it would keep them clear. Acknowledging the difficulties in judging separation visually without external references, the Board considered that the pilot’s estimate of separation, allied to his overall account of the incident, portrayed a situation where a collision had only been narrowly avoided and chance had played a major part. They therefore determined the risk to be Category A, the highest collision risk.

The November monthly summary also detailed another serious London encounter, which took placed about two weeks later on 4th August, when the crew of an Airbus A320 in the Biggin Hold pattern for Heathrow when, on the outbound leg of the hold, and descending from FL120 to FL110, the First Officer (FO), saw a small object in the 1 o`clock position at the same altitude. The object passed very quickly with a lateral distance of about 20-40 metres. As it passed next to the right wing the FO positively identified it as a drone, about the size of a football with a flashing magenta light. This all occurred within seconds and the only thing the FO could do was shout “Look!” The Captain also saw the drone for a short moment, but there was insufficient time to react or to avoid a potential collision. ATC was informed immediately. About 2 minutes later, another aircraft reported the sighting of a drone. On landing, the crew were requested to give a statement to local police. It was noted that the drone was operating at FL115 and therefore beyond practical VLOS conditions. Also, in flying as it was within Class A airspace without the permission of Swanwick ATC, the Board considered that the drone operator had endangered the A320 and its occupants. Therefore, in assessing the cause, the Board agreed that the drone had been flown into conflict with the A320.

Serious concern has been expressed by security and safety experts for years regarding the results of an aircraft experiencing a major equipment engine failure or sustaining damage in a collision on approach to Heathrow. The prevailing westerly wind means that aircraft generally approach over the densely inhabited centre of London and although airliners are certified to be able to lose an engine, quite likely in the event of a UAV being sucked into a turbofan, the loss of an engine at relatively at this critical phase with low speed and low altitude poses obvious risks.

“All drone users, especially hobbyists, who often have little training or understanding of the rules of the air, need to be aware of the dangers of flying them in, or near to, restricted areas; these include airports and densely populated areas such as central London,” British Airline Pilots Association flight safety specialist Steve Landells said.

A third serious airprox incident occurred at Manchester airport on 20th July. This involved a Boeing 767, which was on final approach and short finals to RW23R at Manchester, when an object passed very close down the right side of the aircraft. It was at exactly the level of the flight deck window, and so close it must have passed over the right wing. The object was bright yellow and around 600mm across. Its shape was reported as a very sharp edged rectangle with a square below making a ‘T’. While the board noted that object encountered “did not look like a drone” to the crew, it noted that it “did not look like a balloon either”. ATC was informed, and the police took details after landing. The pilot assessed the risk of collision as ‘High’.

The Board also noted that the pilot had estimated the separation to be less than 20ft from the aircraft, at co-altitude, and that there had not been time to take any avoiding action as it passed over the right wing. Acknowledging the difficulties in judging separation visually without external references, the Board considered that the pilot’s estimate of separation, allied to his overall account of the incident, portrayed a situation where a collision had only been narrowly avoided and chance had played a major part; they therefore determined the risk to be Category A.

The drone operator was not traced in any of the three cases.

In the UK Pilots are pressing for better education and compulsory registration, during which the rules are made quite clear, and they also want more high profile prosecutions of offenders. But as the above incidents confirm, catching and prosecuting such reckless behaviour is proving extremely difficult.

However, a coordinated approach is also required and European drone stakeholders, including the European Aviation Safety Agency, national aviation authorities and drone manufacturers gathered in Warsaw on 23rd-24th November to discuss and reassess Europe’s approach to drones.

The Drone Manufacturers Alliance Europe called for a “balanced regulatory framework” that encouraged innovation and growth in the UAV industry while enforcing compliance with safety standards, including the creation of a European Union-wide register of UAV users.

Whatever emerges urgent action is required on a standardised basis, if the risk of a serious incident is to be avoided.

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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