Drones and airplanes are seemingly on a collision path– and the close calls at airports are multiplying all over the world. The latest occurred on Monday, when a Lufthansa jet nearly collided with a drone as it approached Warsaw’s main airport. Mercifully, there haven’t been any crashes– yet– but national legislatures are now drafting tighter restrictions on drone users.
In just the last month there have been similar drone-scares at airports in Charlotte, Amsterdam, Taipei, Stockholm, and Istanbul. In the Amsterdam and Taipei incidents, a drone went out of control and crashed on one of the runways. (The culprit in Amsterdam was arrested and fined $545; whereas the suspect in Taiwan will face a fine of up to $48,030 when arrested). Airports take this threat seriously, and their precautionary measures cost time and money. For example, Stockholm’s Bromma airport has grounded flights three times in response to drone incursions into its airspace.
Last Wednesday, the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority warned that drone users who violate the newly issued “dronecode” will face imprisonment. The U.K. recorded six serious incidents in the past year when drones came within 20 feet of airliners at airports around the country.
As commercial drones take off in popularity, the E.U. is currently working on new regulations for them, to be ready this fall. Germany, one of the few member states already with specific regulations, introduced new rules in June that prevent the use of drones within 1.5 kilometers of airport perimeter fences.
Warsaw airport spokesman Przemyslaw Przybylski said that drones are — in theory — banned within a 20 km radius from the airport, but added that it’s difficult to ensure that “some idiot does not suddenly decide to fly a drone in front of a landing plane.”
Fortune reported that America’s proposed Consumer Drone Safety Act
would create federal regulations regarding when, where, and how consumer drones can be operated, as well as require that new safety technologies be built into all new drones. These include collision-avoidance technology, transponders that signal a drone’s location to air traffic controllers and other aircraft, and geo-fencing—technology that creates a GPS virtual fence around no-fly zones that would prevent the drone from entering areas near airports or other restricted airspace. The bill also calls for “anti-tampering” safeguards that would prevent users from modifying consumer drones after they are purchased. However, some of these technologies are already emerging from within the industry. Geo-fencing technology is already built into the latest iteration of Shenzhen, China-based DJI’s popular consumer drones, which make up more than half of the consumer drone marketplace.
So far the perpetrators seem to be just irresponsible amateurs, but the stakes are extremely high– a drone collision could mean a crash landing that might be fatal for everyone onboard a plane. The potential for drone terrorism is real, so preventing it needs to be a high national security priority.
Requiring built-in geo-fencing and other automatic safety measures will make drones pricier, and may harm open-source innovation to some degree. Collision avoidance or “sense and avoid” technologies are currently under development by drone manufacturers, who have been operating in something of a legislative vacuum. For developers, new regulations might mean going back to square one, or even bankruptcy. But saving lives and preventing airplane crashes must always take precedence.