On February 19, 2016, an Air France pilot was attempting to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport when he noticed a drone near the left wing of the plane. The pilot switched off the autopilot and maneuvered to avoid a collision. The pilot estimated he narrowly missed the drone – by about 15 feet. The near collision is not a standalone incident. The UK Air Proximity Board recorded 40 instances of drones near-missing aircraft in 2015, with some drones approaching as close as 15 feet. And in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it receives more than 100 reports of drone sightings in the vicinity of airports and airplanes each month. Most of these near misses are not malicious. While it's impossible to rule out the potential for certain bad actors attempting to collide drones with aircraft, the majority of these incidents most likely can be chalked up to drone hobbyists.
Increased Popularity of Drones
Lots of people are buying drones these days. The FAA estimated last year that the Christmas season would see "a million drones under people's Christmas trees" in the U.S. And while this undoubtedly brought good cheer during the holiday season, for pilots landing at and taking off from U.S. airports, the popularity of drones sounds more like the nightmare before Christmas.
And it's not a nightmare they're likely to wake up from very soon. The FAA's latest report estimates 2.5 million drones will be sold in the U.S. this year — a number that is expected to nearly double to 4.8 million in 2017, and nearly triple to 7 million sales by 2020.
Potential Cost to the Economy
Drones could boost the economy — Innovative startups are looking at drones to collect data in a wide range of industries, from tracking crops to measuring snow melt. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers believes that drone-powered solutions could add $127 billion in value to global industry over time. But as the above-mentioned incidents show, there's a risk that drones may impose costs as well.
In recent months, drones have been spotted in close proximity to airliners at airports including Washington Dulles, JFK, and LAX. In September, "unauthorized drone activity" in the vicinity of Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates forced authorities to close the airport for 69 minutes. A separate incident in September forced another closure, and prevented full resumption of operations for nearly an hour. Dubai recently estimated the cost of closing its airport at roughly $1 million per minute the airport is out of commission.
So even if a drone hasn't actually made contact with an airplane yet -- the financial impact of drones is already making itself felt.
Bringing Guns to a Drone Fight
What is to be done? Recognizing the looming threat from drones, many companies are rushing to propose solutions to the threat posed by drones. For example, in one pilot project, the FAA is evaluating use of an "Anti-UAV Defense System" which detects and tracks drones, then jams their guidance with blasts of radiation. Other proposed solutions include systems to destroy drones in flight with laser weapons or projectiles.
James Williamson, Managing Director of Aviation for Leidos, whose systems manage 60% of global air traffic, worries that such a "shoot first, ask questions later" approach poses risks of its own to commercial aviation.
Williamson calls the risk drones pose to aircraft taking off from and landing at airports "fairly significant." Not only because of the catastrophic effect that a drone might have on a jet engine if ingested, but also because of the risk posed by a distraction in the airspace during a crucial phase of flight.
That may sound like an argument in favor of eliminating the drone threat by any means necessary. But instituting aggressive measures to destroy drones that impinge on an airport's airspace risks making the problem worse, not better. "Blasting drones out of the sky," says Williamson, adds further risk to an already fraught situation. Simply put, if you shoot at a drone in crowded airspace — and miss —there's a real risk you'll hit something you weren't aiming at. Hit it and you could destroy the drone in an uncontrolled manner, creating Foreign Object Debris on the runway, another major risk to aviation safety.
How to Shield Against the Risks Posed by Drones
So is there a better way to deal with the drone threat without amplifying it? Leidos believes there is, and has proposed a two-prong approach that begins with studying the problem intensively and progresses towards integrating an array of solutions to deal with the threat safely.
For example, despite all the hand-wringing over the drone threat in the media of late, there have been precious few serious studies conducted to quantify the threat as regards the incidence of "near misses," the frequency with which they occur, and the damage that might result from a mid-air collision. One of these rare studies, conducted last year, was forced to rely primarily on data concerning bird strikes on aircraft before concluding that "the probability of a collision [with a drone] remains at an acceptable level."
And yet, Williamson estimates that it would only cost "a few hundreds of thousands of dollars" to conduct a comprehensive study of the threat. Weighed against the $225 million that would be lost if a Boeing 787-8 airliner were to go down after a collision — to say nothing of the human cost from such a tragedy — it would seem an investment worth making.
Once studies have been conducted and analyzed, airports might choose from an array of off-the-shelf technologies to integrate into a complete solution. For example, the FAA recently ordered operators of Class 1 drones weighing in excess of a half-pound (a size that would encompass DJI's popular Phantom 2 drones) to register with the agency, so as to facilitate monitoring of their use. However, current air traffic radar systems are incapable of accurately detecting and tracking many drones of this size.
British manufacturer Aveillant, however, has deployed its holographic radar in the principality of Monaco to detect and track drones the size of the Phantom 2 at distances "in excess of 4 nautical miles." Combined with complementary solutions from other companies offering acoustic monitoring, daylight cameras, and software to integrate the data collected from all the above, it should be possible to assemble a four-dimensional (4D) picture of drones in an airport's airspace — pinpointing their location and tracking their flight paths over time.
"Such a drone fence – in accordance with Title 18 in the United States – could provide an airport's decision-makers with the information they need to decide how best to deal with a drone threat," says Williamson, "whether by contacting and warning the operator, notifying police, diverting air traffic, or even shutting down individual runways." That would avoid the need to close down an entire airport and incur the "$1 million a minute" costs currently plaguing Dubai.
When you consider that it would cost only a few million dollars to assemble such a system -- a cost that could be recouped in as little as 10 minutes of downtime avoided -- the decision is a no-brainer.
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