Technological travails: safety is at risk

Chris Kjelgaard looks at the topic of drones and how they are causing safety headaches for commercial aviation.

Although technological progress is making increasingly capable gadgets available to the public at ever more affordable prices, fears are intensifying that the massive proliferation of cheap but sophisticated consumer hardware will soon exact an unbearable price on aviation.

The past two years have seen near-exponential growth of reports from airlines worldwide of near-collisions between aircraft and small and medium-sized drones. Most of these drones were, in all likelihood, operated by amateurs.

On Wednesday (July 22), police in Poland confiscated a drone and questioned a man after an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) came within 100 metres of a Lufthansa CityLine Embraer 195 at an altitude of 2,500 feet during its approach to Warsaw Chopin Airport. The aircraft was carrying 108 passengers.

That very day, the UK Civil Aviation Authority launched a ‘Drone Code’ aimed at UAV operators – professional and amateur – after recording four instances of ‘airproxes’ between airliners and drones near UK airports since May 2014.

On July 17, firefighting helicopters preparing to drop water on a rapidly spreading wildfire beside the I-15 freeway near Los Angeles were grounded for 20 minutes by five hobbyist drones hovering directly above them, preventing an entire water-drop cycle.

The delay helped allow the fire to race right across the freeway, torching 20 cars and partially burning 10 more.

In January, air traffic controllers at Dubai International Airport shut down all flight operations at the airport for an hour because several small drones were seen near one of the runways.

The United States is also seeing numbers of near-collisions between aircraft and drones grow quickly. But in the US this rise is paralleled by an equally sharp increase in another trend which poses a similarly dangerous conflict between consumer technology and aviation safety.

This is the burgeoning tendency for members of the public to point laser lights – many of them, perhaps, in laser gun-sights – from the ground at the cockpits of airliners landing at or taking off from nearby airports.

Quaintly called ‘zapping’, this activity is nevertheless a serious federal offence and is prosecuted ferociously by the FBI. Those caught face stiff terms in maximum-security prisons: one man convicted in California last year received a 14-year term.

Not only can brief exposure to a laser ‘zap’ from the ground blind or disorient pilots temporarily when performing critical flight manoeuvres, but if a pilot is unlucky enough to catch a laser light full in the eye, it can blind the eye permanently.

After recording 3,894 reports in 2014 from commercial pilots of laser lights being shone directly into the cockpits of their aircraft, the US Federal Aviation Administration received 2,751 reports in the first half of 2015. This number equates to a 40 per cent annual increase in one year.

On a single night this summer, July 17, pilots of 34 commercial flights over the state of New Jersey reported having lasers pointed at them from the ground.

The rapid increase in near-collisions between drones and aircraft, and the pastime of zapping commercial aircraft cockpits with lasers, are alarming and absolutely antithetical to aviation safety. Concerted worldwide regulatory action is needed immediately to address these problems before either causes an aviation disaster.

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