By Okuneye Moyosola
Over the last five years, the use of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) also known as drones have exploded within the U.S. According to Time Magazine, some 3 million drones were sold worldwide in 2017 and more than 1 million drones were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Several industries are also starting to use drones to improve operational processes, including construction, mining, public safety and industrial.
However, one of the top concerns among regulators and industry experts is that it’s difficult for unmanned aircraft to share airspace with planes, helicopters, and other aircraft. Drones often clog up airspace and cause confusion among air traffic controllers and pilots. As the number of drones flying in the skies has increased, so has the number of aircraft near misses and other incidents of reckless behavior.
Several factors, including technology improvements, mass manufacturing, cost reductions and ease of purchasing have contributed to the increase of drone purchases. Naturally, this caused the need to evaluate the air traffic control system and determine how to integrate this new form of aviation within close proximity of manned aircraft operating at low altitudes.
Great progress has been made for implementation of drones through the creation of the Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulation (CFR Part 107) and the FAA’s NEW Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). With the introduction of this regulation, a safety culture was created for unmanned aircraft similar to that of manned aircraft. This regulation lowers the potential hazards of drone activities while allowing their potential benefits to increase.
Drones can help the aviation industry lower costs, become more efficient and safer. In the case of runway maintenance, for instance, the drone’s high-resolution camera have the ability to detect things the human eye might miss and makes it easier for engineers to spot structural changes over time.
In Europe, two companies are touting drones for the inspection of commercial airliners, a job they can complete in a fraction of the time it takes humans to do. Today, speeding up inspections would reduce aircraft downtime and reduce expensive man-hours spent towing aircraft into hangars and pulling out scaffolding and cherry pickers to reach the upper parts of the plane. Drones can be programmed to fly around and photograph planes — using different flight paths for each make of plane — in about a fifth or less of the time it now takes.
A drone can complete an inspection in 20 minutes, compared to the five hours it takes employees, and the data it collates is automatically stored and easily traceable in a secure cloud-computing environment
The drone digitally photographs the upper part of the aircraft during the final inspection when the manufacturer is looking for cosmetic defects such as scratches and dents. The drone can cover an aircraft in 10 to 15 minutes, compared to the two hours it takes a human (although a human must review the photographs).
The value of unmanned aircraft in runway and other airport operations cannot be over emphasized as it significantly reduce the operational costs of running an airport, as well as enhance safety and operational efficiency.
Drones could capture data on airspace and relay that information back to airport officials. This data could be used to help with possible renovations, similar to what Atlanta is doing here, but also to help more generally identify flaws and determine where operational improvements must be made.
If used properly and safely, drones could replace human workers on runways and in the airport. Not only would this eliminate the need to pay an airport staffer to be on the ground, but it would also, enhance the safety of runways by removing a person who could be harmed by a plane.
Further, it might be possible for drones to collect local weather data in the future. Local weather patterns and trends can have a huge impact on the takeoff and landing of planes, which pilots often note can be the most dangerous part of the entire flight. With National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) already exploring unmanned aircraft to collect weather data, it’s possible that drones on runways could be used in the future to collect similar data, then relay information to air traffic controllers so that they can stop a takeoff or landing if there are dangerous conditions.
Communication and situational awareness are extremely important when an incident or accident occurs. This is particularly true in the case of aircraft crashes, with fuel, ignition sources, sharp metal and energized electrical systems posing hazards during rescue attempts. Drones can be an incredible asset during an emergency situation because they provide the means to immediately launch a low altitude vision platform that can deliver real time data. Traditional aerial views from helicopters or even fixed- wing aircraft may require 30 minutes to few an hours to reach an incident scene, and once they arrive they may be limited in their ability to provide detailed views and data.
Co-founder of Global Air Media, Eno Umoh, while speaking with MMS Plus newspaper highlighted some of the benefits of drones to airport.
“We have seen drones used for inspecting aircrafts because you have to think about the time it takes to inspect aircraft when it comes in and the number of days it would require for human beings to do such task. Drones are also used to scare away birds that are hazards to the airport environment and interfere with airport operations. In the case of an accident, drones can easily be used as an emergency response. More and more airports internationally are recruiting drone pilots to be their staff because of the wide benefits it offers”.
Eno also disclosed the company’s partnership with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in order to create more awareness about the drone technology and to train people on the usage of drones. He said NCAA is yet to approve the partnership and urged them to make the decisions timely because a lot of countries are making use of the technology in the aviation sector.
“Since we are primarily on the educational training side, they are more receptive to what we are trying to do because they know we are not coming here to take advantage of the market or make a whole lot doing the commercial operation but we still NCAA to act quickly. There are so many countries that have rolled up their full regulatory structure to accommodate this technology. We have to be optimistic with the trainings like this, they will see the interest of people in this technology and this will help them to act more quickly,” he said.
Global Air Media is a FAA licensed unmanned aerial Systems (UAS) or drone mapping and cinematography company based in Baltimore, MD, USA. They also offer drone education training, consultation, mapping, and cinematography and consultation services.
Also speaking, an aviation consultant and the Director, Transport, Research and Intelligence, Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology (NITT) Zaria, Dr Danjuma Ismalia while speaking with MMS Plus disclosed that that the aviation sector in Nigeria is not ready for this development.
“I don’t know about the use of drones to inspect aircrafts but I know they are majorly used for security purposes both inside the airport and outside the airport. However, the use of drone is highly controlled around the airport because there is an area where you apply it, and it may interfere with an aircraft. Early this year, there was a drone sighted around Heathrow airport which led to the closure of the airport for some time. These drones can be bought as toys and anybody can operate it. If someone is allowed to be operating it like that, then there is bound to be a conflict. You wouldn’t know whether it’s for security purpose or someone trying to spy on you to perpetrate some criminal activities or someone playing with it, he said.
He advised airports to make use of Closed-circuit television (CCTV) in order to ensure that the airports are well secured.
“What I know is practiced in most airports is that they have a CCTV for security purpose. As big as an airport is, they can have a CCTV that would give the coverage of the whole airport. All that needs to be done is to strategically locate the surveillance cameras and monitor it. I am sure if our airports are 100 percent covered by surveillance cameras and combined with adequate monitoring by officers, then we will be able to get the security we are talking about. I don’t think these drones will be necessary for now. If we allow drones to be used in our airports, it can create a lot of conflict. These drones can interfere with aircraft operations and it can give room for criminals and terrorist to have access to our airports. Even now, I know the drone operation is highly restricted in Nigeria and if there is need to operate it, you need to get the license from the NCAA. I doubt if we have reached that level to say we can use it in our airports. However, if it eventually comes on board, the NCAA will have to know the areas which these drones can operate” he opined.
Meanwhile, the General Manager, Public Relations, NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, while speaking with MMS Plus disclosed the authority’s plans to adopt the drone technology into airport’s operations in the country.
“This is the trend all over the world and it’s already in use all over the world, we just have to be compliant. To that effect, we are collaborating with the National Security Adviser to the President on it. The Civil usage is been controlled by the NCAA while the NSA handles that of the military. We are already working on a regulation to guide its operations” he said.
The Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), for example, spends approximately $1 billion per year on its operations, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017. Using drones has helped an airport such as LAX lessen its burden while also improving safety and enhancing efficiency.
The world of drones is changing rapidly and as it continues to grow, more opportunities for the use of this technology are being developed. By adopting this new technology, Nigeria’s aviation industry will be safer, effective and there will also be a reduction in the cost of operation.