Drones have become public enemy No 1. Hundreds of flights were cancelled at Gatwick Airport from 19 to 21 December 2018 following reports of drones close to the runway. A few days later there were reports of similar drone disruptions from Heathrow. The reports caused major travel disruption, affecting about 140,000 passengers and over 1,000 flights.
These drone reports caused the biggest losses to the airlines and grief for stranded passengers since 2010, when the Icelandic volcano shut down much of Europe’s airspace. The airlines and the travelling public were screaming for the perpetrators to be arrested and have the key thrown away.
In a classic police cockup, no doubt due the extreme pressure to get results, the Bobbies arrested a drone hobbyist and his wife who lived near the airport. They faced the possibility of life imprisonment under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 (interestingly, a law made BD Before Drones). After being interrogated for almost 36 hours, the couple were eventually released without charge. The husband’s boss said, “Although there was a complete lack of evidence, the police ripped his house apart. I know this will mentally destroy him.”
Was it drone hobbyists or terrorists? Allegations about who was responsible were flying thick and fast. The RAF mounted an array of radar and radio detectors on rooftops around the airport. The army reportedly deployed their top-secret “Drone Dome” – an Israeli-developed counter-UAV system. It’s estimated that Gatwick spent £5 million trying to stop the drones.
The frustrated police lead investigator questioned whether there had been a drone at all. The Chief Constable later said that police thought the original sightings were of an unauthorised drone, but it was possible that later sightings may have been of a drone used by the Sussex Police. It descended in a multi-million Pound farce. Gatwick Airport offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.
The police recovered a damaged drone on the airport’s boundary so there was probably a real drone incursion – and the police now admit they received 92 sightings of drones from credible eyewitnesses, even though no videos or photographs were presented.
It became a farce of ducking and diving accountability for the lack of results. Which made me give drones a lot more thought. Apparently one of the problems the British authorities had is that they could not find the operators because the drones had been pre-programmed – and were thus not needing line of sight control by someone on the ground – or a rooftop. By having been pre-programmed they were impervious to being jammed, so I asked the collective wisdom of internet forum www.avcom.co.za what exactly the difference is between a drone and just a model helicopter – or plane? My question was; “is something that flies autonomously by having been pre-programmed; a drone?”
Poster ‘heisan’ who is always good at the regulations, points out an interesting fact - South African Part 101 ‘drone’ regulations only apply to remotely piloted aircraft. So autonomous aircraft operate under the ‘free flight’ restrictions in model aircraft regulations. He adds that the word ‘drone’ is often used to refer to both classes of aircraft, but the usage is definitely not standardised in any way. So if you have an RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial System) and fly it with a controller; “it is under the ‘drone’ regulations, but if you programme that same craft with waypoints and let it do its thing while waiting under a tree for it to come back, it is a different category of regulations.” Thus, Part 101, although commonly called ‘Drone Regulations’, actually only regulates RPAS. If you programme your ‘drone’ to fly to a number of waypoints, but have it under visual observation, and have the controller at hand (to take over if required), then it is still an RPAS.
But if, as it is surmised the Gatwick ‘drone’ operators did, you turn off the controller and/or lose line of sight of it – (and remember, most of the airspace intrusion flights were at night) then it must be regulated as a free flight model aircraft. Thus, the Gatwick perps would not be subject to our anti-drone laws, which are significantly more restrictive than British drone laws.
This raises all sorts of interesting questions – but the key point is that if the Gatwick drone perps had been intent on breaking the law and disrupting air traffic, it didn’t really matter what the rules said anyway. What really mattered was what action the authorities – whether police or military – should have taken to reduce the harm done by the massive disruption. Here again the British coppers came in for a lot of criticism.
It is argued that their response was totally wrong. Avcom poster, ‘tansg’ a former South African now living in the Gulf States, pointed out that there they have an even larger challenge with unauthorised drone usage, “but we have moved way past this idiotic ‘shut everything down’ attitude. Firstly, air traffic control (ATC) uses a tactical risk management framework developed to evaluate the threat and only take appropriate action. Secondly, the drone threat is pro-actively managed in an airport environment risk management programme (including the use of lasers, wildlife, etc). Thirdly, there are identified areas of operation for commercial drones with varying amounts of restrictions on operations. Fourthly, the enforcement agencies have hand-held tools to identify approved operations, so only unapproved ops are targeted. Fifthly, we are working on a system which will prevent any illegal drone flights in that both the drone and the operation station will be tracked and action taken. And lastly, if you get caught you will be convicted and deported.”
Parlaying his insights into illegal drone operations into a broader comment about the nature of regulators, ‘tansg’ added; “I think a large problem is the dumbing down of operational management by installing people who are more politically acceptable than qualified and then putting them in an environment where they are either too scared or unable to make a consequential operational decision. The modern Brits tend to have a rather hierarchical structure where it is expressly forbidden to go outside their level authority, even if it is for operational reasons. The hard decisions tend to get kicked up to some politician type who doesn’t have the knowledge, training, competencies or experience to make those on-the-fly decisions, as they are too worried as to what they will look like in the public eye. The result tends to be ‘paralysis by analysis’ giving rise to what happened at Gatwick and Heathrow. It is time operational managers are again appointed on their competencies and given the authority to handle the situation as they see fit for the benefit of the operation, not for the benefit of some snowflake who may be offended when his drone gets fried because he was too lazy or arrogant to obey the rules.”
The point about those too lazy or arrogant to obey the rules is directly applicable to South African drone flyers.
This is especially the case over the Christmas holiday season when expensive drones are bought as toys. Another avcom.co.za poster ‘pietmeyer’ said, “I spent December at Salt Rock /Ballito area which is inside Durban’s King Shaka airspace. I saw guys on the beach using drones to take fishing lines out. The drones were at about 100ft above the surf. At the caravan park I saw two guys flying their drones to well outside their field of sight and only using the screen on the controller. At the same time microlights were passing overhead and the drone reached the same heights. I casually chatted to the fishing guys, who at least kept their drones in sight, as well as the other two idiots. None of them were even aware of licensing requirements or that they are not allowed to fly in airport airspace.
“Their drones ranged from R20,000 to R35,000 and were bought at hobby shops. Either the person who sold them did not know, did not bother informing the buyers, or they just lied and played ignorant. This will not be easy to solve, and I would think it needs a media campaign to inform potential buyers of the regulations to fly drones. This should be driven by CAA.”
So what should be done about drones? The usual solutions were proposed: Tax them so much that only professionals can use them. Licence a drone like a gun licence: Firstly, show competency, then apply for a license and thirdly restrict drone purchases to licensed vendors. A further recommendation is to have drone registration at purchase, similar to phone Sim card purchases. This not only creates a paper trail for operational tracking, but also for security purposes.
In the final analysis, no doubt the response by the regulators to disruptions like those at Gatwick and Heathrow will mean that drones will indeed become restricted along the lines of gun ownership.
In the meanwhile, we can only hope and pray that the wayward drone operators grow up and start behaving responsibly and legally.