The commercial allure of UAVs has led to an inexorable and uncontrollable proliferation; a problem that could have been nipped in the bud is now a burgeoning plantation with branches mushrooming every minute
Specialists in aviation safety tempered to anticipate accidents are beginning to be increasingly concerned about the impact of proliferation of drones on air safety. The commercial allure of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has led to their inexorable and uncontrollable proliferation; a problem that could have been nipped in the bud is now a burgeoning one. Partly due to commercial pressures partly due to the desire to draft comprehensive and all-inclusive stipulations about drones, aviation regulators across the globe have been sluggish in formulating policies. With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly difficult to devise mechanisms to harness what appears to be a mushrooming epidemic. The longer that drone use defies or circumvents existing rules, the tougher it will be to finally rein in the users.
Safety and Security Concerns
Last year, an unidentified object, believed to be a drone, had a ‘near miss’ with an Airbus A320 passenger jet approaching London’s Heathrow airport. The pilot reported seeing a “rectangular propeller-driven” machine which came as close as 50 feet from his aircraft as it was descending through 1,700 feet. At that altitude, an impact with the drone or ingestion into one of its engines could have been disastrous for the airliner and those onboard. Neither the owner nor the operator of the drone was found. Such ‘near misses’ with potential catastrophic consequences have been reported the world over and are rising alarmingly.
Last December, researchers at the US-based Bard College studied 922 drone incident reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the past two years to analyse near-collision instances between drones and commercial planes. While the study did not find any case of collision between drones and manned aircraft, it found 327 close encounters of which 241 were classified by the FAA as ‘near collision’ incidents. In 28 of those instances, pilots had to evasively change course to prevent impact with a drone. A disquieting figure is that there were a total of 51 incidents in which drones were found in prohibited areas around airports. The number of incidents in 2015 was about three times more than that in 2014. Possibly these ‘near misses’ were as much of a surprise for the pilot of the aircraft as for the drone operator. However, one shudders at the thought of a determined terrorist intent on downing an aircraft to gain instant publicity. All that he would require is a drone costing infinitesimally less than a commercial airliner. The shanty town on the approach path of Mumbai airport affords such a terrorist a launch base from where he can fly a drone into an airliner approaching to land.
In India, there have been a couple of incidents at the Delhi airport wherein ‘unidentified objects’ were reported flying in close proximity to the airport which supports substantial civil aircraft and is collocated with a military airbase. The objective of those flights is uncertain; but the safety and security ramifications are clear for all to see. Drones have been found flying over other airports and near other defence installations as well and, in a recent incident, a drone was found flying near Vijay Chowk in New Delhi. A drone fitted with a camera could photograph or videograph the airport airside or a defence or other sensitive installation which is otherwise protected so robustly on the ground from mala fide human intent. Worst still, instead of a camera, the drone could carry a weapon or an explosive device. The possibilities are endless and definitely disturbing.
Who is to Regulate Flying by Drones?
For three days bracketing the Republic Day celebrations, Bengaluru city Police Commissioner banned the flying of UAVs including balloons in the city airspace. Curiously, the regulation invoked was Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Section 144 deals with “power to issue orders in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger.” It is clear that this expedient became necessary as there is no regulation governing the flight of drones. Occasionally, the media can be found indirectly blaming a state government for not regulating drones. So who should regulate them?
Drones use the airspace to operate in three dimensions. Thus, their movements fall under the purview of the Directorate General Civil Aviation (DGCA), the aviation regulator charged with safety in the airspace above Indian territory. However, before we look at what DGCA has done in this regard, there is the question of defining what a drone is so that we know what is being regulated. The size of today’s drones varies from barely visible objects to huge vehicles flying for hundreds of hours even beyond the troposphere. Internationally, some of the terms used to describe flying objects not carrying a human pilot are unmanned (or unpiloted) aerial vehicle (UAV), unpiloted air system (UAS), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), drones and aero-models.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN agency relevant to civil aviation, issued Circular 328, entitled ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)’, which defined unmanned aircraft as an aircraft which is intended to operate with no pilot onboard and a UAS as an aircraft and its associated elements which are operated with no pilot onboard. The term remotely piloted aircraft is used by the ICAO to define an aircraft piloted by a licensed “remote pilot” situated at a “remote pilot station” located external to the aircraft (i.e. ground, ship, another aircraft, space) who monitors the aircraft at all times and can respond to instructions issued by air traffic control (ATC), communicates via voice or data link as appropriate to the airspace or operation, and has direct responsibility for the safe conduct of the aircraft throughout its flight. Thus, RPA is a subset of unmanned aircraft and so, while UAS is used by ICAO as an all-encompassing term, RPA is only the piloted part of UAS. However, away from the technicality of terminology, any flying object except manned aircraft tends to be referred to as ‘drone’. The ICAO is yet to publish any standards and recommended practices (SARP) in respect of use of UAS. The initial SARPs is expected by 2018 and the whole machinery should be in place by 2025.
Drones have been found to be flying over other airports and in the vicinity of defence installations as well
The DGCA is yet to put into place a regulatory framework for use of drones. It issued a public notice on October 7, 2014, which informed all thus, “The DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations and globally harmonise those for certification and operation for use of unmanned aircraft systems in the Indian civil airspace. Till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency, organisation or an individual will launch a UAS in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever.” A subsequent regulation is yet to be put into place while public awareness of the above quoted public notice is a big interrogation mark. Even those who are aware of the notice seem also to be cognisant of the fact that DGCA does not have the manpower to ensure its implementation. Thus the widespread use of drones is increasing day by day. The Draft National Civil Aviation Policy circulated in October 2015 and awaiting final approval does not mention the word ‘drone’ or ‘UAV’ in its entire text. It would appear that a regulation may take time to be promulgated by DGCA on the use of drones.
The Way Forward
Some of the major countries that have defined norms for operation of drones are the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, Turkey and Spain. Hopefully, the delay by Indian authorities to put a regulation in place is on account of their deep and analytic study of the pros and cons of these nations’ regulatory frameworks.
In India, the DGCA’s October 2014 notice is valid but not enforced. It is thus still possible to import, buy, build or fly small drones in India, despite the ban by DGCA. In the absence of a multi-ministry initiative, drones continue to be used blatantly and, unfortunately, with total disregard to air safety. Even when a DGCA regulation is in place, in all probability, this state of affairs will continue as it would be impossible for the DGCA, already short of manpower even for its current workload, to monitor, oversee and implement its own regulation.
In addition to issuing a regulation, what needs to be done is to control the import and manufacture of drones. If the availability of drones to a populace that is not sensitised to air safety is restricted, it can be the first step towards ensuring air safety related to drones. Making it mandatory to fit a GPS device in all drones could be the next step in controlling indiscriminate and profligate use of drones. The United States is looking at a regulation to make it mandatory for all drones above a certain weight, to be registered with the FAA so as to make it easy for the owner to be traced in case of a violation.
In the UK, three firms have devised an anti-UAV defence system (AUDS) that detects a drone flying in sensitive airspace by radar, sights it via a camera equipped with thermal imaging capabilities so that it can be targeted visually and jams its control signal, making it unresponsive. In addition to regulation, this approach could be adopted to ensure that drones do not impinge on air safety.
Drone operations primarily need to be seen as an airspace management challenge. However, simply putting a DGCA regulation in place is unlikely to deter the already huge number of persons, states, official government departments, security and police forces, commercial firms and other entities from continuing their use. A regulation is no doubt required, and that too as early as possible to stop the slide in process, but that would be just the beginning. Public awareness would have to be enhanced and other Ministries involved in controlling the thriving numbers of drones. Hopefully, we get it right before a drone becomes the major cause of a catastrophic aircraft accident in the Indian skies.