It’s happened again. Following high-profile disruption after drone sightings at London Gatwick, London Heathrow, Newark Liberty and, most recently, Dubai International airport, another has grounded air traffic.
This time it was at Dublin airport in Ireland, where flights were delayed for around half an hour after a pilot spotted a drone near the airfield.
Update re this morning's drone incident. Agreed drone protocols with @IAApress were immediately activated & followed. We put passengers' safety & security first at all times. Flying drones within 5km of @DublinAirport is a crime. https://t.co/aKtncHn96w pic.twitter.com/XTx1y0Pm5m
— Dublin Airport (@DublinAirport) February 21, 2019
A statement from Dublin Airport yesterday said:
Flight operations at Dublin Airport were suspended for safety reasons for a short period this morning following a confirmed drone sighting on the airfield.
A pilot reported a drone sighting to the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), which operates air traffic control at Dublin Airport, at about 11.30am.
Very shortly afterwards, and having contacted other aircraft in the vicinity, the IAA suspended flight operations at Dublin Airport in line with agreed protocols for confirmed drone sightings.
A 30-minute suspension of flights was implemented by air traffic control at that point, which is the agreed procedure in such cases. As there were no further drone sighting within the 30-minute suspension period, Dublin Airport resumed flight operations shortly after noon.
What does it take to confirm a drone sighting?
Dublin Airport’s claim that there was a ‘confirmed drone sighting’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. The only details shared in the statement were that a pilot reported a drone sighting to the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). There is nothing to suggest that this wasn’t a suspected sighting rather than a confirmed one.
Unless, of course, the airport has a counter-drone system that detected the same drone or some kind of photographic evidence. But you’d think they would have mentioned that evidence if it is present.
Bad regulations are already resulting from Gatwick
Either way, the recent flood of drone sightings and airport closures is something we should all be concerned about. In a rather knee-jerk response to the fiasco at Gatwick before Christmas, the UK government has altered an initial exemption for drones weighing less than 250g from its new extended restriction zone around airports.
The proposal, due to come into effect on March 13th, has been updated in a way that applies restrictions to all small drones, regardless of their weight.
Under the new rule, any pilot who operates a drone outdoors – even the tiny micro-drones that weigh less than 250g and are generally flown in back yards – would need to first report their intentions to Air Traffic Control (ATC). If the flight is within the now 5km airport exclusion zone, that is.
Many airports across the UK are close to residential areas, so should micro-drone pilots comply with the law, air traffic controllers are going to waste a huge amount of time and resources dealing with notifications that offer no obvious safety benefit.
Upcoming European drone regulations have the 250g category down as that which poses the least risk to manned aircraft. It makes no sense that a 250-gram toy should be subject to the same risk assessment and requirements as a 7kg commercial drone.
Node has already launched a petition against this move, in case you want to add your name to it. It’s an apparently small ammendment to the original document that hasn’t been properly thought through, is impossible to enforce and impractical for both ATC and hobbyist pilots.
Read more: 5 Times It Wasn’t A Drone After All
Why are more drone ‘sightings’ happening?
Drone sightings near airports and in manned aircraft flight paths have been on the rise for a while now. But the past two months or so have seen an unprecedented increase in disruption to airport operations. There are a few reasons why this might be.
First, we could conclude that rogue drone pilots are being inspired and emboldened by stories of airport disruption around the world and want a piece of the action. That is possible, but it doesn’t explain the lack of evidence confirming these sightings – particularly at Gatwick, where the world’s media and thousands of frustrated travellers were watching the skies.
Second, it might be that airport staff and airline pilots are getting better at spotting drones. But third, and most likely, is that media hype and overreaction is the public, airline pilots and airport security staff to blame drones whenever something unidentifiable is spotted: shadows, lights in the sky, birds, bats, plastic bags, police UAVs hunting for non-police UAVs, that kind of thing.