As recent events at the Gatwick and Heathrow airports have shown, a small drone — or even just the possible sighting of a drone — can be a big problem.
Just before Christmas, flights were brought to a halt by a drone sighting in Gatwick’s airspace.
More than 1,000 flights — and 140,000 passengers — were affected by the flight disruption, and the cost to the airport and affected airlines is expected to reach $34 million.
After the incident, both Gatwick and Heathrow ordered millions of dollars of military-grade anti-drone technology.
But that didn’t prevent a similar, but shorter, shutdown at Heathrow last week. The airport shut down for an hour after a drone sighting was confirmed by police, and legislators in Britain are now looking at toughening legislation for drones and drone operators. In particular, pilots want the British government to expand the area where drones are banned near airports: right now, drones aren’t legally permitted within one kilometre of an airport boundary. The British Airline Pilots Association wants that extended to five kilometres.
Here in Canada, new drone comprehensive legislation was unveiled last week: the regulations will require drone operators to be older than 14, and will require operators to go through an online training program.
In addition, drone owners will be required to register both commercial and recreational drones, and, most importantly, carry a visible federal registration number. In addition, the use of drones within nine kilometres of an airport will be restricted.
The move comes after a series of incidents involving drones and aircraft, including an aircraft striking a drone near Laval airport in October, 2017 and the grounding of water bombers fighting a B.C. forest fire because of a drone being operated over the fire ground.
All that being said, the new regulations — which are to come into effect on June 1 — don’t fully close the security gap that the Heathrow and Gatwick incidents highlighted.
While the rules may go a long way towards informing recreational operators of the risk — and while the registration numbers may make it easier to track down offenders — the rules alone can’t prevent anyone from deliberately and maliciously using a drone to halt airport operations at any Canadian airport.
And Gatwick is probably the best explanation of that: officials can’t even say for sure that a drone incursion actually did happen in that case. Sightings were reported, and as a result, takeoffs and landings halted — because even the fear of a drone in restricted airspace constituted such a large safety threat.
Beyond regulations that will, most likely, reduce the number of accidental or uniformed drone incidents, there have to be concrete measures to halt drone incursions.
Chances are, even now, a company with the right anti-drone technology is poised to make a lot of money.