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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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15 comments

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15 thoughts on “Australia’s ‘low risk’ drone strike stance could bring down airliners

  1. Confirmed Sceptic

    As a user of both technologies allow me these observations:

    I have hit some pretty massive birds in my jet and turbo prop career. Geese, Ibis, owls and hawks. A small drone is a lot less dense than even a small water fowl. I doubt that there is much impact damage potential, except from possibly the Lithium polymer battery.

    The drone you pictured is a Phantom by DJI Industries. DJI is the leader in consumer drones and autopilots for even 10 kg rigs. DJI has incorporated no-fly zones that work with the onboard GPS to prevent flight close to airports. Soon they will also have a 400′ service ceiling too, I expect.

    Certainly there are plenty of users who do stupid things, flying too high or too close to people and property. I would be a lot more concerned with drone flight too close to soft-skinned people than airliners. The world is full of horrific lacerations from the unguarded props, which is probably the aspect of drone design and use which deserves the most immediate attention and regulation.

    Strangers to RC drones would be astonished at what a few hundred dollars buys: inertial heading and attitude reference, baro ref for altitude and speed, GPS nav and speed, three axis autopilot with waypoints and RNAV. Data logging and HGS video link for the operator too, with a full pitch/roll/hdg/alt and speed display. My small drone has better avionics than the business jet that I flew in the 1970’s

  2. chpowell

    A thoughtful, calmly reasoned post. Ben, you should be heading up CASA.

  3. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Flouting not ‘flaunting’.

  4. t fal

    Yes the new UAVs are technologically advanced, but the operators may not be. To be complexity unregulated is dangerous.

  5. discus

    As an engineer I would suggest 2 kg of that (or anything) being ingested could be serious problem.It may not kill or injure, but it may cause considerable damage to an engine.Possibly a very expensive fix from even minor blade damage. Even the down time for a boro inspection without major damage can take an aircraft out of service for hours at best.
    I cannot imagine the damage that would do to your face or hands as CS says, that must be a real and ever present safety issue.

  6. ianjohnno

    The thought of such things being in the hands of boozed-up yahoos, I find alarming for many reasons.

  7. derrida derider

    I think CS’ comment, rather than Ben’s post, hits the mark. The risk to airliners from small drones ranges from extremely low to non-existent, just as it nowadays is from single birds (now large FLOCKS of drones might be another matter …). It could in any case easily dealt with by requiring exclusion zones built in (a la DJI’s), though it probably isn’t even worth the nuisance cost to users of even that. The FAA’s actions on this are dumb, dumb, dumb.

    Big commercial or military drones are perhaps another matter, though there are minor non-aviation issues (privacy, nuisance to others, risk of minor injury, etc) that might need sorting with small drones. But don’t get to the ridiculous stage we have in NSW where you can’t legally buy a laser pointer for your Powerpoint presentation (or for teasing your cat with) because of a heavy-handed response to a tabloid panic over a seriously tiny theoretic risk.

  8. Confirmed Sceptic

    I do like the two kilo limit rule as that largely limits users to line of sight, max range of under 1 km approximately. With a GoPro camera 2kg will only allow a battery with less than 15 minutes flight.

    I would be very happy is safety rules were even available in the package. Even simple user safety rules are hard to find.

    The fact that boozed up yahoos will have these is inescapable…until harsh liability penalties are imposed on improper operation then there will certainly be more and more of these, and an increasing number of accidents.

    The first day I went into a shop to look at these the guy tried to get me into a $5,000 drone that would have been like eight naked lawnmowers in my unskilled hands. The injuries really are horrific from these things…google multicopter injury images if you must.

  9. David Penington

    It sounds like you want red tape, which is anathema to the current government, especially since enforcing it costs money.

  10. t fal

    I believe the issue here is people will flaunt the rules. Especially if there is no regulation. How can CASA penalise them if they don’t even know about them?

    Harsh penalties have not seemed to stop planes being lasered. Always another idiot out there. It will be the same with this technology, especially as it is getting cheaper and cheaper.

    Basic regulation should be the preferred option. A small craft licence and education.

  11. Dan Dair

    This is something which should be getting dealt with from the ‘supply-end’.
    When an item is purchased it MUST have basic operating instructions & USE instructions with it.
    It MUST also have clear & bold information relating to training & registration scheme, when it happens.

    I agree with Sceptic & others who’ve suggested a compulsory operators course.
    An online one would suffice, but I would also suggest a registration of operators to go with it.
    In this scenario a purchaser of one of these things MUST undertake & pass the online course, then register their details on the database. (If they buy another drone they must register it, but can enter the certificate number for the course they’ve already passed)
    That way, in the event of an incident an owner / operator of a drone will already have had the minimum awareness that their actions may have consequences to which they will probably be held liable.

    I would secondarily suggest that the owners/operators clubs be engaged to help promote registration & ‘best practise’ amongst their users.

    I can also imagine a club-based insurance scheme being set-up to help cover the liabilities in the event of an unfortunate incident. (Something like what cricket & golf-clubs have, to cover them for broken windows, to car-accidents & personal injuries as a result of stray-balls.?)

    I can see no sensible reason why CASA couldn’t oversee a certification & registration process, even if it were all via an online system.
    I would also think that manufacturers & retailers could be prevailed upon to subscribe to this system & possibly fund it.?

    In the event of a major incident, if the actual culprit IS a ‘yahoo’, I’m sure the lawyers for the injured parties would quickly start to look at the possibilities of suing the manufacturers or retailers for ‘knowingly’ putting a ‘hazardous device’ in the hands of an ‘untrained’ & ‘irresponsible’ individual.?
    So by assisting with training & registration, they’d actually be helping to protect themselves from irresponsible users.

  12. t fal

    These are different to model aircraft. The Model Aeronautical Association of Australia (MAAA) is a different kettle of fish. They have established an organisation with specific airfields, rules and insurance. It is fair to say that a majority of people operating these new UAVs will not be operating under the MAAA.

    The uptake of this technology is increasing at a dramatic rate. Incidents will also increase proportionally as people continue to push the boundaries to get that ‘awesome’ photo or go pro video to show their friends on Facebook. Go onto any of the online forums or Facebook for the likes of the DJI Phantom or Parrot AR Drone and you will see people flaunting the rules both in Australia and around the world. Quadcopter hitting the Sydney Harbour Bridge ‘I don’t know whether it’s a bomb or not’: Train driver flummoxed after drone hits Sydney Harbour Bridge

    What has CASA done to educate operators on the rules? I believe just recently that pamphlets are now available in some Australian stores, but like anything now days, a large number will be imported from overseas. How do unlicensed UAV operators:
    – Know where airports are? Yes the major city airports may be obvious but users may be unaware of smaller GA or regional airports.
    – Know where restricted areas are?
    – Know where controlled airspace boundaries are?
    – Know where helicopter landing sites are?
    – etc etc

    CASA needs to educate and regulate. A online package of the rules (and the reasons behind them), information where people can and can’t fly and most importantly the consequences, should be established. A online UAV register would also be appropriate, especially when UAVs are ending up in places they shouldn’t be. This should be compulsory for hobbyists and commercial operators, with hobbyist excluded if they register and operate under the MAAA. Commercial operators should have to produce some proficiency with their chosen craft. Perhaps a small craft licence is appropriate.

  13. t fal

    For those against the proposal head to http://chn.ge/1jHZ3lY to show your support

  14. gdt

    The exclusion should also apply to areas likely to be aircraft landing zone in the conditions. For example, a likely helicopter LZ alongside a traffic accident.

    There should be visibility requirements, such a lighting.

    There should be a ban on use during poor visual conditions, including at night.

  15. Arcanum

    Forget the “boozed-up yahoos”, what about the security impications? As a terrorist, why would I bother trying to smuggle weapons or a bomb through airport security when I could fly a drone into the path of arriving or departing aircraft?

    As for laser pointers, I must admit I’m a bit conflicted. It seems a bit crazy to restrict their sale, but I’ve also been hit in the eye with a green laser twice now as a departing passenger, once in Toronto and once in Hong Kong. Fortunately I was fine, but I worry what might happen to a pilot since presumably his/her flying career would be over if there was permanent eye damage.

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