Drone incidents and offenders at airports

Drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) represent tremendous economic and innovation opportunities for businesses and individuals alike. As drones become more common in the sky, so do incidents in which drone operators run afoul of the law, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

With an ever-growing number of drone incidents steadily increasing in Europe and around the globe over recent years, the safe and secure integration of drones into the airspace poses a major challenge today.

Unauthorized drones in the surroundings of airports represent a latent and potential risk, leading to unanticipated consequences. If a small drone collides with an airplane’s engine, it could cause physical damage worth up to $10 million. In the event of an accident, planes may be forced to make an emergency landing, causing delays or cancellations, as well as significant financial loss.

In 2018, a total of 115 drone sightings over the airport of London-Gatwick were reported, and this brought about severe disruption, which lasted 33 hours, over 1,000 flights had to be canceled, thereby affecting some 140,000 passengers.

In February 2020, three out of four runways at Madrid Barajas airport were temporarily inoperable, following a drone sighting, with 26 flights re-routed. Due to the reported presence of drones at Frankfurt Airport, one of Europe’s busiest runway operations and some flights were suspended twice in one month in 2020.

DFS, the German Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), has recorded over 500 such incidents since 2015. 92 drone interferences were observed in 2020, despite a significant decrease in traffic due to the COVID-19 crisis.

According to studies, there are three main categories of drone incident offenders causing civil aviation hazards: non-criminal motivation, gross-negligence, and criminal/ terrorist motivation). They relate to the intent of the drone’s remote pilot:

Negligence

Individuals who are oblivious to or unaware of the applicable regulations and restrictions. As a result, they fly their drones over sensitive or forbidden terrain. Their attitude is “clueless,” and they have no intention of disrupting civil aviation.

Individuals who are careless and aware of the applicable regulations and restrictions violate them due to their own fault or negligence. As a result, they fly their drones over sensitive or forbidden terrain. These people have no intention of interfering with civil aviation.

Gross negligence

Individuals who are aware of the applicable regulations and restrictions choose to ignore them to achieve personal or professional goals (e.g., aggressive spotters). Their actions can be described as “reckless” because they cause disruption to civil aviation while completely ignoring the consequences of their actions.

Individuals who actively seek to use drones to disrupt airports and flight operations, regardless of whether they are aware of the applicable regulations and restrictions. These individuals may even act as a group to maximize their impact. While their actions may have unintended consequences for aviation safety, they do not intend to put human lives in danger.

Criminal/terrorist motivation

Criminals and terrorists are individuals who actively seek to use drones to interfere with the safety and security of civil aviation, regardless of whether they are aware of the applicable regulations and restrictions. They should be considered criminally motivated or even terrorists because their actions are deliberate and show no regard for human lives and property.

Unauthorized drones are most commonly reported near or inside airport perimeters, close to airports, or in the arrival and departure paths of runways that aircraft use when landing or taking off. Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of a collision between a manned aircraft and a UAS, aerodrome operators and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANPSs) may have no choice but to halt or restrict runway operations, causing severe air traffic disruptions.

In general, drones are involved in three kinds of incidents, such as Mid AirCollisions (MAC) with manned aircraft, Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC), and airport airspace closures.

1. Near Mid Air Collision (NMAC)

A Near Mid Air Collision (NMAC) is defined by the FAA as an incident involving the operation of an aircraft in which there is a risk of collision due to proximity of fewer than 500 feet to another aircraft or when a pilot or flight crew member reports a collision hazard between two or more aircraft.

Outcome

  • Discomfort of little risk to passengers, as passengers see UAV.
  • Minimal risk on the operation of aircraft, as the pilot(s) is distracted by UAV.
  • Evasive action from aircraft pilot(s) to keep separation with UAV.
  • Physical distress on passenger due to abrupt evasive maneuver.

2. Mid Air Collision (MAC)

SKYbrary (2018) defines a Mid Air Collision (MAC) as an accident where two aircraft come into contact with each other while both are in flight. Airspace Closure Airspace closure for an airport is a period of time during which no aircraft is permitted to operate to and from that airport.

Aviation Safety Network Database (2018) reported a Mid Air Collision between a UAV and a Boeing 737-887 on 11th November 2017. The aircraft could land safely but suffered minor damage to the left-hand fuselage below the left-hand flight deck window. The aircraft was grounded for inspection.

Outcome

  • Minimal, major, or severe damage to aircraft.
  • Injury to passengers.
  • Complete loss of aircraft and/or fatalities in passengers
  • Flights diverted, delayed, canceled, and/or returned.
  • Passengers stranded at the airport or diverted to alternative airports.
  • Economic losses for airports and airlines.

3. Jetliner & Airport Indoor Sighting

Jetliner Sighting is a dangerous new trend. Jetliner Sighting is the action of taking pictures and/or videos of an aircraft, typically a jetliner, during its landing or taking off phase with the camera embedded in a UAV. Those pictures and/or videos are later on posted on social media. In 2018, YouTube showed a frightening video of a jetliner landing at the McCarran International Airport, taken by an anonymous UAV pilot and published on social media. Airport indoor Sighting, on the other hand, is the action of taking pictures and/or videos with the camera embedded in a UAV flying inside an airport hall.

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