Random passengers or friends often pop into the cockpit while disembarking to chat (or criticise the landing…) The other night a cameraman with whom I had worked many years ago stopped to say hello and the conversation soon moved to our current occupations. He has moved on to operating camera drones and was quick to complain about the new CAA regulations, which now require drone operators to be licensed. In fact the SACAA was one of the first aviation regulators in the world to implement a set of regulations for the new drone phenomenon – which, in reality is not all that new.
One of the Merriam-Webster’s definitions for drone is “an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers” and, if you think about it, we have had remotely controlled aircraft for years.
I remember fondly my schoolboy excitement when saved cents and birthday gifts allowed the purchase of some plans, pieces of balsa, glues, dope and a “Baby Bee” engine. Once built, this magnificent aerial machine would be controlled via two lines, which would deflect the elevator up or down – with a fixed rudder ensuring that the aircraft wanted to fly out of the circle. If doom did not strike earlier, running out of fuel would signal the landing. This usually ended in a thud and another rebuild…
Many years later, my son (then in high school) would become involved in flying radio controlled models. These were much more sophisticated and operating the aircraft and radios now required SAAMA membership and adherence to all the applicable regulations. Some of these models, powered by huge engines, were so realistic that one could hardly discern them from real aircraft in flight.
Soon radio control helicopters were all the rage, capable of outrageous manoeuvres – simply impossible to do in real helicopters. The commercial application of these machines quickly became apparent and cameras were fitted, the new GoPro-type allowing all and sundry access to aerial video footage. One thing led to another and now every toy shop will sell you a quad-copter or multi-copter which you can immediately go and fly from your local park or beach. This has now become a thorny issue, with your average Chinese-made multi-copter, bought at the local toy store, suddenly being bracketed with huge commercial UAV’s or military strike drones. In fact, the definition is now simply “drone” – no more UAV.
Are drones actually that dangerous? I would argue that our privacy is more at risk than our safety. These camera drones can be programmed to fly a predetermined GPS flight path without any direct control, while beaming video directly to the operator – who could be kilometres away. As always, the safety of the operation would depend on the operator’s skill, awareness and safety consciousness.
Clearly, allowing your ten-year old to fly his drone on a busy beach would be dangerous, apart from being just plain stupid. In the USA someone recently operated a drone over a fire fighting operation, causing the grounding of the helicopters and aircraft – stupidity would be difficult to control.
The popular media were quick off the mark to dramatise each and every reported incident of an aircraft experiencing a “near miss” by a drone. What we and the media should realise, is that the responsible use of these toys would hardly pose a threat to most aircraft operations – far less of a threat than bird strikes, of which we have plenty.
Not all bird strikes end in dual flame-outs and river landings, but they occur very frequently and often cause substantial damage.
Some airports have measures in place to minimise the risk – at JNB they have the well known dog programme in place, other airports simply send out a vehicle to run up and down the runway when birds are reported. Despite the potential damage resulting from a bird strike, we accept that risk as manageable and keep on flying. All this while birds cannot be remotely controlled.
Drone regulations need to address the airspace which could involve other aerial operations and aerial vehicles, or operation over sensitive populated areas. The answer regarding the use of drones would be some commonsense regulations and responsible operation of these potent machines by the many new converts to aviation.