The increasing safety threat by drones to air travel

As Britain battles an airport shutdown throwing Christmas travel plans into disarray for hundreds of thousands of passengers at Gatwick, it begs the question, could drones cause a similar flight fiasco here?

There's been a boom in drone sales in recent years with around 280,000 of them now in the country.

But alongside that comes a rapidly increasing threat to the safety of our airspace.

"These events are happening now," says Airways head of strategy Trent Fulcher.

"We're getting two incursions a week into controlled airspace, which means two unauthorised drone flights in or around the airport, and this is up 100 percent from a year ago."

One such incident earlier this year saw a drone fly within metres of an Air New Zealand flight, endangering 278 passengers and crew.

And it can be difficult to find out who's flying them.

"The laws require you to have line of sight to the drone, which depending on the size of the drone is going to cap out at maybe a kilometre, but the radios will stretch a couple of kilometres away," says DJI drone expert Jonathan Kubiak.

Drones can be a helpful tool to improve safety, used in surf lifesaving and agriculture, but they can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Particularly the larger drones like the ones disrupting Gatwick Airport, says Mr Kubiak.

"Absolutely, they are an aircraft and an accident is going to cause some damage so that's why it's very important to understand where you're flying and what you're doing."

There are some basic rules:

  • It's illegal to fly a drone within four kilometres of an airport.
  • They mustn't be flown above 120m.

Counter-drone technology does exist, which can disable them in the sky causing them to return to base. And a drone detection trial is currently underway at Auckland Airport.

But air traffic controller Airways says regulations need updating and there are gaps in the system that leave airports at risk.

"We've been pushing hard for mandatory registration, mandatory training and certification for pilots, and also getting trackers on drones," says Mr Fulcher.

Work is underway to improve safety and the Government is due to make recommendations in the New Year.


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