Damon Knight, Head of Safety, Security and Quality (SSQ), Air Navigation Solutions (ANSL)
With a degree of scepticism is perhaps the right way to describe the aviation industry’s view of drones when they first gained popularity. The aviation industry has operated according to comprehensive standards and regulations for many years.
Clear rules exist for anyone wanting to participate in the air traffic system, and standards must be demonstrated and adhered to in order to use the crowded airspace shared by all users. The more complex or densely populated the airspace one intends to use, the more rigid and detailed the rules to follow. This is a system that requires a high level of direct engagement and a higher level of manual management, but it is one that prioritises safety and has successfully facilitated the shared use of increasingly constrained airspaces worldwide for many years.
Suddenly, onto the market come small, low cost, quick and flexible flying objects that are hard to spot, invisible on aviation surveillance displays, and widely available to hobbyists, enthusiasts and professionals alike. What most scared the aviation industry perhaps was that a whole new ‘flying community’ developed; one that was separate from the professional aviation industry, not required to undertake any prescribed training, had rarely heard of the Air Navigation Order or comparable regulations, and was and to a reasonable extent still is unregulated.
This description clearly does not apply to all drone operators, but the nearly unlimited accessibility and low cost of drones meant that the qualifications, specific expertise and regulatory oversight of the average drone operator were not comparable to those of aircraft operators. The aviation industry’s concern that a mass movement was about to invade the safe and regulated sphere of its existence was not therefore unreasonable.
Unfortunately, this concern was then validated by the ‘Drone Incident’ at Gatwick Airport during December 2018. The scenario, which resulted in the disruption of 140,000 passengers during the lead-up to Christmas, was rightly or wrongly seen as evidence that this new industry had the potential to put at risk the high standards that had ensured the safety and efficacy of the aviation industry over many years – as anticipated, some would say.
As the Air Navigation Services Provider (ANSP) of Gatwick Airport, Air Navigation Solutions (ANSL) was directly involved in the management of this incident. We worked closely with Gatwick Airport and the airline community to reinstate safe operations as quickly as possible. The approach at this point was undoubtedly to view the drones operating in the immediate vicinity of the airport as a safety and security risk and to manage the situation accordingly.
Integration as the path to success
Let me reassure you, however, that once the safety and security of the airport, the operation and all passengers were reinstated, our focus shifted from ‘protection’ to integration. Everything said above may well be true, but what is critical is reaching a state where standards and requirements have been aligned. To achieve that, integration is the way to go. Safe and effective sharing of airspace will be predicated on aligned principles – not to be confused with identical rules and requirements which would not reflect the differences in nature of the operations and would negate the potential that drones can have whilst operating inside more densely populated airspaces.
From the perspective of aviation, protection against the risk that drones can pose to conventional air traffic cannot sustainably be achieved through exclusion. The sheer numbers will render this impossible, as will the huge potential of constructive drone operations for the industry. From the perspective of the drone industry, whether professional operator or hobbyist, freedom and flexibility will equally not be achieved through segregation. A joint effort is required to progress integration, and if we can make one request of the drone operators around the globe, it would be to collaborate rather than coexist: be open to change that facilitates integration. This is equally important as new regulation comes into force at the end of 2020.
In August 2020 we carried out the first successful flights with drones on Gatwick Airport under our integrated Drone Operations on Airports (iDOAIrports) workstream. We are investigating the ability of drones to deliver structural inspections of airport buildings (which are required regularly but today carried out manually) as well as thermal inspections to identify sources of heat leaks. We are also investigating their ability to automate and substantially speed up airfield lighting inspections, which are a regulatory and technical requirement but take a lot of time and effort when performed manually.
We are committed to continuing this work to reach full integration of drones even on the busiest airports, including Gatwick Airport, the airport that is typically solely associated with the negative connotations of drones, and we invite you to come with us on this journey.