Uplink ALPA - The Voice of Aviation

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter. As of April 2020 Uplink ALPA is a 6-monthly publication.

Lasers and drones in 2019

NZALPA’s IFALPA Director Tim Robinson reviews progress on better regulation for New Zealand aviation.

This year has been a real game of two halves when it comes to progressing regulation on two specific technologies – one presenting opportunity along with its initial challenges, and the second a technological instrument that has little place in aviation – where it is used as a dangerous weapon.

I’m talking of course about Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or drone devices, and also the highly dangerous practice of pointing high powered laser technology at cockpits and into air traffic control towers. 

Beams get in your eyes 

First the very frustrating. The Minister of Transport is adamant that, despite the continuing increase in the number of laser strikes on aircraft, there is no need to change legislation or to look at increasing fines or custodial sentencing as a deterrent. As reported in Uplink and in national media earlier this year, since 2014 there has been a 130 per cent increase in reported strikes on aircraft or into air traffic control towers.

Between 2014-18, 717 laser incidents were reported, with main areas of offending in Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Gisborne. Major airports experience, on average, two laser strikes a month. And it’s not just civil aviation at risk. Emergency services such as rescue helicopters and even more in the last year, the police Eagle helicopter, have also been firmly in the cross hairs of thrill seekers possessing high powered lasers and little regard for the safety of our members or the travelling public.

Increasingly New Zealand is becoming an outlier internationally for its less enlightened regulatory stance on the use of these devices in aviation. Scandinavian countries prohibit or highly regulate their use, the United Kingdom has increased penalties and widened regulatory scope, and in the United States, both the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) takes such offences very seriously, with fines up to $250,000 and five years in jail. In New Zealand it remains a summary offence and very unlikely to attract the harshest penalty under the Crimes Act. 

In the meantime, NZALPA continues to press the Government for laser attacks to be taken seriously – raising their status as an offence equivalent to such acts as high jacking and bomb threats, collectively known as ‘acts of illegal interference’. In Parliament, a member’s bill awaits its first reading on proposed legislation which seeks to at least increase the penalties for such an offence, provided of course, the offender is found. The Government has already said it will not support that Bill. 

For NZALPA, nothing short of complete prohibition of such devices over 1mW can suffice. New Zealand might be a signatory to the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, ostensibly during times of conflict, but civil aviation at home is not afforded the same attention – making the Government’s inaction almost as reckless as the laser-brandishing offenders. This will remain an NZALPA government priority in 2020. 

RPAS safety and regulation 

On a more positive note, NZALPA is seeing the results of several years of awareness-raising and government lobbying regarding the regulation and safety of RPAS or drones. Finally, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is completely reviewing drone regulatory settings and NZALPA is actively engaging in the process with Government and alongside a number of other industry leaders. 

At the heart of the review are the current CAA rules and regulations covering drones included in Part 101 (Rules when flying drones) and Part 102 (certification required for anyone wanting to operate a drone outside those Part 101 rules). 

These are NZALPA’s presented changes to the existing CAA provisions: 

• Mandatory registration of all drones weighing more than 250g or being used commercially 

• Annual registration fees that are appropriate and affordable to users and operators 

• Larger drones (more than 15kg) required to have an annual certificate of airworthiness 

• Drone operators required to carry out competency training and required to have either a safety certificate; a drone pilot certificate; an advanced pilot certificate or a commercial drone pilot certificate – depending on the weight of the drone being used and the nature of its operations 

• Drones to have a unique serial, bar or QV code or electronic identification mechanism as these become readily available from drone manufacturers

• Minimum operator age of 16 years for drone regulation enforcement • Accreditation process with overseas equivalence accepted for drone operators visiting from overseas. This would be accompanied by an online test before operating a drone in New Zealand 

• Spot fines for breaching CAA rules 

• Confiscation of drones and banning of operators where serious or repeat offending occurs 

• Compulsory insurance for all commercial operations and all drone operations more than 250g 

• Exemptions from all the above provisions for drones classified as model aircraft and operated by an accredited Model Flying New Zealand club member at an approved/recognised site for recreational purposes only. 

Of course, New Zealand is not alone when it comes to grappling with RPAS technology and its rapid uptake by amateur enthusiasts and the commercial sector. There are opportunities along with the challenges, and this has not been lost on entrepreneurs and those looking at alternative public transport options. 

Meanwhile, the European Union and peak body industry organisations like IFALPA, among others, have done much to highlight urgent regulatory measures needed to keep up with the technology. NZALPA considers the research it has done and its resource investment in this issue to be one of the highest priorities on behalf of its members and its wider obligations regarding the safety of the travelling public. We consider our submissions best practice and will continue to push the highest and safest standards forward through the next stage, during the Government’s formal public and industry submission stage on the proposed draft Rule changes. 

Although due process must be undertaken, and effective regulation still to be put in place accounting for future technological innovation, as a pilot flying this summer I feel a little more at ease knowing that real progress has at least been made to more safely integrate drones into New Zealand’s skies.

The FAA makes it easy for the public, pilots, air traffic controllers and others to report laser strikes immediately through a custom app. The FBI is also involved with a reward programme designed to identify offenders.



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