Less than a week before Christmas last year, drone sightings brought London’s Gatwick Airport to a standstill. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, stranding an estimated 140,000 passengers – many of whom were forced to queue in long lines, sleep on the floor and scramble to make alternate travel arrangements.
The incursions brought into sharp focus the threat posed by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to airport operations and the widespread disruption and chaos it can bring to passengers. In the aftermath of the Gatwick incident, as well as drone sightings in New Jersey a month later that brought operations at Newark Airport to a halt, 13 North American aviation and security officials – including Mark Laroche, the president and CEO of the Ottawa International Airport Authority – formed a blue-ribbon task force to study UAS detection, identification and mitigation in and around airports.
“The rapid growth in unmanned aircraft systems is a development that airports, the UAS industry and government regulators are grappling with across North America,” Laroche said in mid-July as the task force released its interim report, containing more than 20 recommendations.
These include encouraging regulators to require that all drones be equipped with remote identification technology and associated with registered operators, and to make that data available in real time to airport operators and public safety officials.
The report also calls for more education for “careless and clueless” UAS operators about the risks and penalties associated with unauthorized drone usage around airports, as well as strict enforcement of laws prohibiting UAS operations in restricted areas.
Additionally, the report highlights the importance for aviation authorities to be prepared for various UAS incursion scenarios, such as a prolonged airport closure. Logistical and communications plans – as well as provisions to assist large numbers of stranded passengers – are required to effectively manage such a situation.
The interim report also highlighted the leadership of officials at the Ottawa International Airport, which is one of the first airports in this country to propose to Transport Canada a draft intervention plan, incident protocol and response approach for drone incursions. Ottawa airport officials also led the organization of a successful drone tabletop exercise to review several scenarios and viable approaches.
Looking ahead, the blue-ribbon task force is slated to release a comprehensive report later in 2019.
“Unmanned systems have a valuable role to play, but their misuse can cause tremendous disruption to our travellers and the economy that we must work to avoid and mitigate,” Laroche said.