It is definitely a deliberately provocative front cover heading designed to attract attention – ‘the rise of the drones’. The Air Force dislikes the term ‘drone’ mainly because of the media headlines about drone strikes taking out Taliban insurgents that imply that drones are autonomous robots, all-seeing omnipotent machines that find and destroy their targets without human input.
Instead the Air Force prefers the term ‘remotely-piloted aircraft’, or RPA, which has also been adopted by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Certainly in the military context RPA is more accurate terminology than UAV or ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’.
It is true that military platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper (on our front cover) are unmanned aircraft in the sense that a pilot is not physically on-board the aircraft. But it is more accurate to say they are remotely-piloted, as the crew of a Reaper, comprising a pilot and sensor operator, flies the aircraft and makes all the decisions on the employment of its weapons and sensors, from the ground.
While autonomous aircraft may be on the horizon, for now at least UAVs are only unmanned in the sense that there is no-one physically in the aircraft. All decision-making is made by a trained human.
(Indeed, as we report in our feature elsewhere this issue, the RAAF”s director of unmanned systems calls RPAs “hyper-manned” because of the personnel requirements to operate a system capable of 24/7 ‘persistent’ operations.)
Where RPA is more of a misnomer is in the world of small drones that can be purchased by the general public. Yes, small drones are ‘piloted’ in the sense they are controlled by a pilot on the ground via remote control, but in the vast majority of cases drones are flown by ‘pilots’ with nothing like the qualifications and aviation knowledge and understanding of a ‘pilot’ in a traditional manned aircraft.
And that’s an area of great concern and controversy. Anecdotally many professionals within the aviation industry, from pilots to air traffic controllers, hold grave concerns that it is only a matter of time before a small drone crashes into an airliner on approach or departing an airport, causing a potential disaster.
CASA faces the unenviable task of trying to regulate an area of aviation that is near impossible to properly control. Small drones are cheap and plentiful, all you need to own one is a credit card with a $1,000 balance, a few minutes shopping online at eBay or even Officeworks and voila, you’re a drone ‘pilot’. (We will know we have hit ‘peak drone’ when the drone you order online is delivered to your door by an Amazon.com delivery drone.)
The U S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched the Aerial Dragnet program, which “seeks innovative technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of all [unmanned aircraft] operating below 1,000 feet in a large city”, Could there be applications here in keeping airports safe from rogue drones?
The rules covering the commercial operation of drones that weigh more than 2kg requires operators to hold an RPA operator’s certificate (ReOC) and the pilot to hold a remote pilot license (RePL) – ie to hold aviation knowledge and training.
But of greater concern are the regulations covering recreational use and the new rules introduced from September 29, covering commercial use of drones weighing less than 2kg. In both cases no formal aviation knowledge is required, with only two key requirements governing their use. aerodromes,” states CASA’s website summarising the new amendments to CASR Part 101 introduced on September 29, and “you must not fly your RPA higher than 120 metres (400ft) AGL.”
Essentially these same restrictions apply to recreationally flown drones (and remote-controlled aircraft). But how will an RPA pilot with no formal aviation knowledge and training know when they are flying within 5.5km (or 3nm) of a controlled airport? And how well do they know the dangers of doing so if they decide to disregard those rules?
You must keep your RPA at least 5.5km away from controlled ‘Peak drone’ will be when the drone you order online is delivered to your door by an Amazon, com delivery drone.
Because there’s little way of stopping a drone being flown into controlled airspace, whether through ignorance or deliberate wilfulness, and almost no way of warning of a potential drone strike with a commercial airliner carrying hundreds of passengers until it is too late.
Drones are so small that they can’t be detected by air traffic control primary radar, and they’re not fitted with transponders.
Short of having Air Force Reaper RPAs patrolling the airspace around our major airports ready to shoot down rogue drones that enter controlled airspace with their Hell fire missiles, what is really needed is a better understanding of the dangers of a 2kg drone impacting a “manned” 737 with 150 passengers and crew.
For decades aviation has focused on minimizing the very real danger of bird strike, so aircraft do already have some level of protection against a drone strike. Still, we need to know more about the risk posed by drones, especially with their solid batteries and motors and spinning rotors.
The perception of drones undoubtedly suffers from their foreboding appearance – whether a Reaper or a recreational drone purchased off eBay they look like something out of a sci-fi movie.
But the threat that drones pose to the safely of pilots and the flying public is more than just perception.