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air safety

May 20, 2014

Australia's 'low risk' drone strike stance could bring down airliners

Just how bad could it be if a two kilogram drone was struck by an airliner doing say 360 kmh as it descends toward an airport, maybe a capital city airport? There are

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A solid, longer endurance, 1.3 kg inexpensive quadcopter: on line shopping image

Just how bad could it be if a two kilogram drone was struck by an airliner doing say 360 kmh as it descends toward an airport, maybe a capital city airport?

There are those who argue that in the highly unlikely event that such a device wasn’t belted out the way by a wave of air already being pushed a short distance ahead of the descending jet, the impact would, emphatically, not cause a plane crash which could claim hundreds of lives, in the jet, with maybe more in the suburbs below.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that there is an unacceptable risk that such a collision, perhaps involving a control surface, like the stabiliser tabs so important toward the rear of some airliners, could have really dire consequences.

Small drone meets Virgin Blue near Perth 2009: You Tube frame

While this may seem like sensationalism, it’s a question that needs to be discussed, not in haste, but in measured detail.

CASA seems to dealing with the question in haste. It posted on 14 May an NPRM or Notice of Proposed Rule Making, which if enacted, would mean that small amateur or privately operated drones weighing less than two kilograms would not be regulated by the safety regulator.

The industry, as in the airlines, and the makers and users of very light, but increasingly sophisticated yet also increasingly affordable drones such as quadcopters, have until the middle of next month to respond to the NPRM.

That’s a very short time to consider stake holder views in which the stakes could be very, very high, and puts CASA’s attitude of intentional helplessness at odds with the much more serious manner in which such matters are viewed in the US.

This is a very difficult, yet promising issue. The drone revolution, from the smallest and most affordable devices, to much heavier and versatile commercial UAVs, is starting to deliver massive improvements to industrial and personal safety, and a host of benefits in terms of managing rural properties, public emergencies, and even checking out surfing breaks up and down the coast from a beach side car park for those of used to the dawn ritual of deciding what is working best at that magic time of day.

(The writer no longer chases the best break of the morning, but hey, I remember!).

The problem with personal scale drones will be common sense, consideration for others, and the avoidance of unintentionally causing harm, like the smoking remains of an airliner whacked by a drone as it turned toward Voodoo on the southern approaches to Sydney Airport while someone sent the device hurtling down the coast to check out the bomie near Burning Palms!)

Or put even more simply, the problem is lack of knowledge.

This is why a Plane Talking hobbyist UAV pilot and a commercial pilot has shared his response to the CASA proposed rule making.  He doesn’t want CASA to abandon what it sees as the low risk end of the drone regulation spectrum, which is not unreasonable, such low risk doesn’t mean no risk, and could mean a terrible accident, involving let’s say a train, a truck driving through a tunnel,  high energy power lines, as well as an aircraft, or even a hang glider or sky diver.

His proposal would require the light drone users to acquire basic knowledge as to what is on and off limits, backed up up by on line resources to help them avoid breaking the rules, and endangering people unintentionally.

He also proposes more detailed responsibilities for commercial users of such devices.

A check of Amazon showed a range of quadcopters from $US 39 for a 70 grams device with a total span of 38 cms to a very fancy 1.3 kilogram device almost half a metre wide for $US1299 and an endurance of 25 minutes, which is more than enough time to get into really serious trouble near an airport.

Nothing is going to stop the drones. But something can be done to make their use much saner, and safer, and quite possibly, even more enjoyable.

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