NZALPA has received national attention for its call for assertive government action on drones before there is a catastrophic collision with an aircraft.
There have been recent incidents where potential collisions could have occurred, such as in late January when drone sightings at Auckland airport led to delayed landings for six aircraft; and two reported near misses involving drones on New Year’s Eve. In one of those cases a drone reportedly came within 5-10 metres of the Police Eagle helicopter.
NZALPA President Tim Robinson says these incidents have heightened industry concerns already expressed. He says the consequences of a drone collision could be far worse than bird strike; which is already a significant risk to aircraft.
“Responsible aviation is all about reducing risk and it doesn’t make sense to have few controls and drone operators breaking the rules with no consequences, especially when their actions create risk to human lives.”
NZALPA is calling for compulsory registration of drones weighing more than 250 grams. Robinson says this would enable the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to communicate directly with drone operators. NZALPA supports and encourages drone usage and the development of this new technology. However at the same time it is very important that drones are integrated safely and responsibly into the New Zealand airspace system.
He says the pre-Christmas Gatwick and Heathrow airport drone incidents highlighted the potential for drones to be used maliciously, the first time this has been a clear consideration.
Many major airports around the world are now investigating equipment that can detect drone operations and any incursions into their critical airspace.
The United Kingdom government recently announced initiatives to reduce the risk of drone incidents. This includes increased police powers to land, seize and search drones; expanded use of technology to detect and repel drones at airports and prisons; extensions to airport exclusion zones and a mandatory registration scheme.
Canada also recently announced new rules requiring operators of drones weighing between 250 grams and 25kg to register and mark their drone, and to have a pilot certificate (basic or advanced depending on the type of operation). The Canadian rules are broadly similar to those already in place in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) requires commercial drone operators to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and for hobbyists to receive guidance on drone operation.
Canada experienced a collision between a commercial aircraft and a drone in 2017. The aircraft received minor damage and was able to land safely.
Robinson acknowledges the difficulty of enforcing drone regulations and catching offenders. He believes, however, that technology can be harnessed to improve aviation safety. This could include electronic identification fitted to drones, geo fencing around airports; and the use of anti-collision technology.
New Zealand already has drone rules, but NZALPA is calling for these to be reviewed and strengthened. In March last year the CAA said a review of drone rules was near completion and the Ministry of Transport was leading an all-of-government group to look at future regulations.
“We can’t afford to wait any longer, the risk is just too great,” says Robinson said.
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