Just as the spurt in global drone technology development is defying the speed of imagination, so also safety risks continue to evolve much faster than efforts to domesticate them. With drones discovered in the past on the White House lawn and the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office, the threat of stray flying robots finding their way into restricted airspace is fast becoming a reality.
The Dubai International Airport, one the world’s busiest, closed its airspace for an hour and a half on Saturday evening due to unauthorised drone activity. This is the third such incident in less than five months.
The same day, the airport in Sharjah, about 15km away, was also closed for a similar period of time because of the same drone.
Around 100 airlines fly to more than 260 destinations from the Dubai hub, which is also home to carrier Emirates. Apart from the larger issues of aviation safety, inconvenience to thousands of passengers, experts have estimated that Dubai’s economy loses about $1mn for every minute the hub is closed.
Around the world, the use of civil drones, whether for commercial purposes or as a leisure activity, is rising. And that has led to regular reports of near-misses with commercial aircraft.
Each month, US pilots and air traffic controllers report more than 100 drone “sightings” to the Federal Aviation Administration, which says such incidents have surged since 2014, with more than 1,200 events nationwide last year. FAA rules restrict drone operators from flying within five miles of an airport and above 400ft.
Drones, made of solid plastics, batteries and metal, will “most certainly” cause more damage to an aircraft than birds, which have caused airliners to crash, according to a US study published in November 2015.
There is, however, no stopping of technology. The global market for commercial drones, currently estimated at $2bn, will jump to as high as $127bn by 2020, says a PricewaterhouseCoopers study.
One way of domesticating drones is to apply technology, experts argue. Drones could be manned by geo-fencing technology, which could prevent the robots from flying near airports. Embedded software could also restrict the altitude.
The flying of drones is prohibited within 5km of airports, helipads, landing areas or manned aircraft in the UAE. Authorities in the UAE have also announced their plans for introducing even stricter rules on the purchase and use of drones and the penalties for violations.
Gulf states are currently investing millions of dollars in technology and system upgrades to ensure seamless and safer passenger as well as freight movement. With Middle East airports expected to be handling nearly 450mn passengers a year by 2020, constant upgrades to the security system are needed to deliver a better travellers’ experience, says the International Air Transport Association.
There are growing concerns that a drone could sometimes be used by terrorists to wreak havoc. The unauthorised use of small drones – a clear danger to aircraft, privacy and wider security – needs to be policed with a viable combination of stricter regulatory measures and latest technology.
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