On regulating drones

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
April 25, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

On April 17, a British Airways flight that was returning from Geneva was thought to have been hit by a drone as it was approaching Heathrow airport in London. Although the damage was minimal — and it is unclear that the obstruction was a drone — this incident is a timely reminder that stricter laws and enforcement are necessary to prevent serious drone accidents from occurring.

Since December 2015, Americans have been required to register and license the drones they purchase. Though this was a step in the right direction, there should be more flying drone regulation, especially overseas.

Currently, the size of the problem is unclear since sales of drones in Britain and around the world have not been fully tracked. Moreover, the vast majority of the drones sold are small in size and thus would inflict little to no damage if involved in collisions with aircrafts. However, there are drones that weigh 25 kg or more, and these could pose serious hazards to air traffic. To make matters worse, as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration indicates, consumer sales are projected to grow to as many as 4.3 million by 2020.

The recent British Airways incident, regardless of the actual facts of the case, marks the first time an internationally reported news item involving a drone-aircraft collision has been reported and discussed in the media. However, it is now being reported that close encounters between unmanned and manned aircrafts have been occurring with growing frequency. Britain’s Airprox Board, the British national aircraft safety organization that has data concerning the number of near-collisions, has stated that there have been twenty-three such incidents in a recent span of six months. America’s Federal Aviation Administration says that out of 582 instances where an aircraft saw a drone nearby, over thirty percent were “potentially hazardous.” The numbers reported by these two agencies suggest that more regulatory attention must be paid to this problem if we are to avoid serious collisions in the future.

It is difficult to estimate the extent of the damage that could be caused by a drone to an aircraft, because the damage varies depending on drone size, aircraft size, and the material the vehicle is made out of. Currently, the regulations are minimal. In Britain and America, drones are not allowed to fly near airports, go higher than about 500 feet, and must be within seeing range of their operators.

Although stricter regulations and enforcement by themselves are not sufficient to stop collisions, these measures will certainly help contain the problem. Adopting licensing and registration regulations similar to those used for automobiles, for instance, can help authorities worldwide identify drone operators in the event of an accident.

There have also been moves to improve the technological capabilities of the drone, with some drone makers installing “geo-fencing” software that prevents drones from flying near airports, nuclear plants, and other hazardous or sensitive locations. Ideas such as “no drone zones” have also been suggested to limit traffic and ensure safety.

But there are other alternatives as well. NASA has a project underway that would allow drones to communicate with each other, as well as inform air-traffic controllers of their current coordinates.

Hopefully with a combination of more regulations, stricter enforcement and improved technology, the skies will remain safe — for both unmanned and manned aircraft vehicles.

Contact Ramya Balasingam at ramyab ‘at’ stanford.edu.


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