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Social Affairs: Dronemania

News that a drone had been sighted over London Heathrow, resulting in aircraft movements being halted for an hour, undoubtedly brought some joy to those who are viscerally opposed to the existence of the airport (or indeed any airport anywhere, along with their expansion) but the fact that a drone may have been sighted should come as no surprise after the pre-Christmas chaos at Gatwick.

Inevitably there has been criticism of the temporary cessation of flights at Heathrow but consider the alternative; those responsible for air safety are damned when they err on the side of flight safety and disrupt the travel plans of the huge numbers using London’s airports but if they didn’t – what would the level of criticism be should a drone collide with an airliner and a crash result, with loss of lives?

So the authorities at London’s airports, as well as those elsewhere, have a duty to stop flights if the presence of a drone in the immediate vicinity of an airport presents a danger to them. That of course, includes your flight, be it on business or holiday. Put more bluntly, you can’t get anything done or have a good time somewhere if you are dead.

However, it is also time to stop and think for a moment. When your flight is delayed because somebody is using a drone around your airport, just who is that is causing the delay? Sure, you moan at the airline, or the airport operator but as we have seen, it is not their fault that your flight isn’t going anywhere; the fault is entirely and solely with the operator of the drone. Nobody else – which does raise some interesting questions.

There are naturally the obvious questions, such as the threat posed by terrorists using drones to kill people. Then there is the query of what you do when see your neighbour (or somebody unknown to you) flying a drone over your house and using it to take photographs of you and your family. To both, you will, and quite fairly, raise an objection or two. Then there is another aspect to drone flying that crops up in mainstream media quite frequently, that of a person or persons unknown using a drone to smuggle drugs or mobile phones into prisons. This you will also object to, and again, quite fairly. And you will usually finish objecting by saying something like, ‘They should do something about this!’

So who exactly are ‘they’ and what is, or has been done? As The Aviation Oracle will undoubtedly point out elsewhere on KJM Today, there are, and completely unknown to many people, a raft of regulations in place already by the Civil Aviation Authority (the CAA) to govern how and where people fly drones. As its name implies, the CAA govern everything about civilian use of the air, including that cool Christmas prezzie, and that mega-marvellous new gizmo that your grandson now has – after all, isn’t a drone (even a small one) merely an extension of the radio-controlled car that is still very popular among the young? Actually, no. Its not.

As pleased as punch your grandson may be but even if he is just ten, he is still subject to those requirements laid down by the CAA – and those requirements include some of those that apply to the Captain and pilots of your holiday flight…you know the one – the one that got delayed because some idiot was flying a drone around your local airport.

You might well ask why the highly-trained pilot of a commercial airliner and your ten-year-old has to meet the same or very similar regulations even though the first is flying a real aircraft and your grandson is just having fun with a toy. The answer is that drones are not toys and since, collectively and very broadly speaking, too many of us still show the same irritating lack of thought and care towards others when using drones, the same lack of thought and care demonstrated in so many other, everyday situations, drones have to be regulated. The sky above is also not as empty as it seems. Actually it is rather full of aircraft of one kind or another (not all of them civilian) even though you may not be aware of them and it very definitely isn’t empty around an airport.

Despite the lack of personal discipline from some, many people will indeed take the time to find out what those rules are and what they have to do to be able to have fun with a drone (even if they are older than ten) but all the rules and regulations there are, and no matter how rigorously they may be enforced, do not allow for the illegal use of a drone, which obviously includes the afore-mentioned prison-smuggling. Or for that matter, smuggling in general – who knows how much illicit material has been quietly and unobtrusively brought into the UK by a drone flown across the Channel? Come to that, how many successful prison flights have been made? Nobody knows. A successful flight isn’t going to be uncovered or it wouldn’t be successful.

There are however, two greater dangers to uncontrolled and illegal drone use. The first is that of plain old-fashioned irresponsibility, that lack of thought, care and personal discipline referred to above. That somebody, who in all probability has the cash and no idea of what they are otherwise doing, buying a drone and ‘having a laugh’ at the expense of others. Just as has happened with other things (like fireworks) such use can result in injury and even death when something goes wrong, as it almost certainly will. Human nature has shown rather remorselessly that it will be so.

The second is even more worrying and also mentioned very briefly earlier; that of a drone-borne terrorist outrage. Anybody who thinks that somebody who wants to inflict the maximum amount of carnage on society hasn’t looked at the use of a drone to kill people is not seeing the wood for the trees. And most frighteningly, even a comparatively small drone is capable of carrying a significant enough amount of explosive to cause the death of a large number of innocent people, which includes the prospect of deliberately flying a drone into an airliner close to an airport, either on take-off or landing.

As reluctant as I am to put forward the idea of new laws and restrictions (there are enough already), one I would happily support is a complete and total ban on drones. Forget Amazon having fleets of them delivering direct to your door - if you think a ban to be a little extreme, you may feel differently when a drone, or a number of them at the same time, are used in a terrorist attack and people are killed because of it.

© Kevan James 2019.

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