Thursday, December 27, 2018

Drone Disruptions, Close Calls, Show Current Regulations Are Way Too Lax

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Waiting passengers at Gatwick Airport, UK, after a drone scare this past week. More than 100,000 were affected and hundreds of flights delayed or re-routed.

Can we finally say 'enough is enough'  with the millions of drones infesting the world's skies especially after what happened recently at Gatwick Airport  ('Drones Shut Down Major UK Airport', WSJ, Dec. 21, p. A8)?  Not to mention the suspected collision of a small drone with an AeroMexico plane ('Risk Of Airliner-Drone Crash In Focus After Incident', WSJ, Dec. 17, p. A6)  a week ago?  I mean,  what is it going to take? A drone ripping into a Boeing 767 engine with hundreds of lives lost before regulators get their collective act together?

As reported in the piece about the near mid=air collision (ibid.):

"Wednesday's AeroMexico incident is bound to prompt greater focus on the various ways airports, regulators and drone operators are experimenting to reduce the risk of such midair crashes, particularly in the vicinity of airports when planes are more susceptible because they are flying slowly and low."
And in regard to the Gatwick disruption (ibid.):

"Authorities took the dramatic step Thursday of grounding flights all day at one of Europe;s busiest airports, upending plans for more than 100,000 passengers after what was said to be a deliberate attempt to use drones to disrupt travel.

The incident at Gatwick Airport, about   an hour's drive south of London, punctuates the growing threat to civil aviation by unmanned aircraft....Worries over drones have disrupted airport operations before but never for such a long time at such a large airport."

And, of course, I've been blogging about this issue since the drone menace first reared its ugly head, e.g.

Look, there are many players to blame in this, from a weak-willed, bought out congress anxious to get campaign donations from the drone makers, to the manufacturers themselves - who want as few regulations as possible.  Then to the likes of the drone users, including Alphabet, Inc. and Amazon who've bet big on the drone future.

Indeed, as long ago as February, 2012 I had written:

"Yet another federal agency (FAA) is now being held hostage to the corporatist-industrial complex,  attempting to find new avenues for drone production since the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending (well the first has officially ended, the second nearly so....

In the case of this new FAA bill, worth some $63 billion (and already four years in the lobbying and rewriting phases), U.S. skies would be inundated with tens of thousands of unmanned drones sharing airspace with commercial planes - and recall these are already at the beck and call of overworked air traffic controllers, as gauged by nearly 300 near misses per year. Imagine if they now had to contend with thousands of these unmanned drones flying who knows where?

Certainly the commercial pilots themselves aren't too enthused. As a WSJ article observes
('U.S. Skies Could See More Drones', Feb. 4, p. A7):

"Barely hours after the 374-page bill became public pilot union officials urged a more deliberate approach. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 53,000 pilots across North America, said his organization remains worried about safety issues such as training and certification of those unmanned aircraft.

Then, in a Feb. 27, post some weeks later I cited a Denver Post front page story noting:

"Congress has told the FAA that it must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by 2015"

In other words, even then congress myopically invited the potential for  a slew of near collisions! All for what? MONEY! Each drone that ended up in the skies put lobbyist money in the craven congress critters'  pockets, likely from the "Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International".This is the selfsame "industry trade group"   that has pushed this bullshit down the FAA's throat and used congress as the Trojan Horse to do it....with billions of dollars of money exchanging paws in the background.

I then quoted a PR specialist for the same AUVSI outfit, a Ben Gielow - who could barely control his drooling:

"The potential civil market for these systems could dwarf the military market in the coming years if we can get access to the airspace.."

If?....Well hell, they've now gotten that access to the civilian commercial airspace and with disastrous results.   Some may ask:  what's so wrong with companies pushing to use drones more, and lobbyists getting in on the act too? Plenty! Starting with none of these actors has clue one  - or any real experience - with the historically slow pace of crafting aviation rules. I am talking here not just about getting drones into commercial airspace, but being able to protect large transport craft with hundreds of humans using that airspace.
That problem has not been solved, and when stringent proposals were offered by the Obama FAA, i.e. making all drone operators get a pilot's license to conform to a certain standard - the drone makers and congress went ballistic.   True, in some nations, e.g. Germany, there is now a push for those elements manage the country's air traffic control system, to make steps toward "a harmonious and safe coexistence of manned and unmanned aviation".  (WSJ, Dec. 24, p. A9).
However, even the most optimistic observers including specialists in aviation and regulatory agencies admit when pushed that "even partial integration is many years away and is dependent on technical leaps still on the drawing boards."  (Ibid.)

More daunting for the drone mavens and operators:
"Some drone proponents worry the Gatwick incident could lead to regulatory backlash. The British Airline Pilots Association, which has long called for tighter rules for private drone use, this week called on the British government to raise to 3.1 miles (from 0.6 miles) the drone exclusion zone around airports. It also called for drone licensing and registration requirements."

These are also changes I've endorsed in previous blog posts for U.S. drone management.  The reason is simple:  despite what the drone lobbyists, users and aficionados may say,  it's much better to preemptively make the skies safer for commercial aircraft using stiffer regs, than to wait for a catastrophic drone-airline  collision that kills hundreds to change. After which many may want ALL unmanned craft banned permanently from within 100 miles of  major airports. 

All of these matters should have been thought about when the first legislation appeared nearly 7 years ago. However, the lobbyists, drone makers and a cowed congress were too much in a hurry.  They all  felt the need to dash to the finish line when more sobriety, reflection and temperance was required. The displaced passengers at Gatwick may well be the first adversely affected in mass numbers, but they won't be the last.   And as drone specialists note, it will take years - perhaps as long as a decade- before an effective integration of aviation regs is achieved. In the meantime, what to do?  Common sense screams that the FAA must implement powerful provisional regulations including licensing and registration of all would-be operators.

Cumbersome? Maybe. But preferable to having irresponsible jerks bring down a jetliner with hundreds sacrificed to political and financial expediency.  (And yes, unfortunately in the current 'Drone world', "Peter has to pay for Paul".)


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