U.S. government and industry efforts to prevent accidents between planes and drones are receiving heightened attention in the wake of a possible collision last week between an Aeromexico jetliner and an unmanned aircraft.
Days after one of the carrier’s planes touched down in Tijuana with a large dent and an adjoining gash in its nose, investigators and airline officials on both sides of the border still haven’t definitively said whether the cause was hitting a drone, striking a bird or some unrelated structural problem. No injuries were reported.
Aeromexico has said only that the cause of the damage is under investigation. According to U.S. industry and government officials, there appeared to be no sign of feathers or blood on the damaged section of the aircraft, nor did Mexican authorities find embedded remnants of a drone.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is looking to send a sample from the Mexican jetliner’s nose to the Smithsonian Institution, which has experts for identifying minuscule remains of birds, according to a person briefed on the matter.
If the culprit was a drone, it would mark the first documented collision in North America between an unmanned aircraft and a large passenger jet. A military helicopter and regional turboprop previously have been involved in drone-related accidents in the region, and there have been dozens of close calls. There also are a number of unverified reports of collisions between drones and small planes in other countries, according to air-safety experts.
But for years, many of these experts have said their worst fear is a serious accident between a drone and a commercial airliner filled with hundreds of passengers.
Wednesday’s Aeromexico incident is bound to prompt greater focus on the various ways airports, regulators and drone operators are experimenting to reduce the risk of such midair crashes, particularly in the vicinity of airports when planes are more susceptible because they are flying slow and low.
Some recent developments suggest gradual progress. Salt Lake City International Airport is about to install portable radar systems covering two runways supplied by Fortem Technologies Inc., a startup partly backed by
Local officials and business leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area also have picked Fortem as part of a proposed airspace safety and security initiative centered around the city of Palo Alto, according to the company. Preliminary plans call for the skies over the Silicon Valley city and nearby airspace, including Stanford University and Moffett Field airport, to be monitored and better organized to handle drone traffic, according to one person involved in the discussions.
San Diego and Raleigh, N.C., are among cities participating in separate, federally sponsored pilot programs to develop collision-avoidance systems for drone package delivery other applications. In New York state, an alliance of businesses, government agencies and research groups last month announced successful tests of next-generation collision-avoidance technology at Griffiss Airport in Rome, N.Y.
Timothy Bean, chief executive of Fortem, said in an interview that advanced technology allows the creation of many more no-fly zones, but public education and legislation are inadequate to mitigate risks. “When it comes to enforcing the rules, we are far, far behind,” Mr. Bean said.
The goal of projects incorporating various drone-tracking systems nationwide is to promptly alert airport managers, air-traffic controllers and law-enforcement agencies about suspicious airborne intruders. The same systems can be modified to monitor airspace and provide alerts around stadiums and other public sites.
Some approaches rely on tiny, novel ground radars—weighing barely 2 pounds—designed to detect small, low-flying drones. Others depend on what are called “geofencing” techniques, which use onboard navigation and software to permanently block drones from entering certain areas.
Still other strategies envision a combination of sensors installed on drones and ground-based receivers such as cellphones to create a discrete, low-altitude traffic-control network.
More work needs to be done before there is an industry consensus, and the Federal Aviation Administration is years from finalizing regulations spelling out performance requirements.
But already, there is widespread industry agreement that a fatal airliner-drone collision could instantly set back the fast-growing industry—and likely prompt knee-jerk reactions from regulators and lawmakers. “That’s always been the big fear,” according to Kenji Sugahara, a consultant and drone pilot. “If something like that happens, it’s a disaster for all of us.”
Mr. Sugahara is part of an industry group, working under the auspices of the American Society for Testing and Materials, that is crafting voluntary industry standards for the remote detection of drones. He said the standards are expected to be released early next year.
On Friday, an FAA spokesman said technologies able to detect unmanned aircraft and prevent collisions “are essential for safe drone operation and further integration with the air-traffic system.”
The FAA receives more than 1,000 reports annually of drone sightings close to aircraft. An agency-sponsored study last year concluded that, under worst-case scenarios, collisions between airliners and drones weighing between 4 pounds and 8 pounds could result in significant damage to manned aircraft.
Congress has expanded the authority of federal agencies to hack, jam or even shoot down dangerous drones. Antiterrorism experts have identified potentially weaponized drones as a top security threat.
are among the companies hoping to lead in providing drone-detection and deterrence services.
Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]
Powered by WPeMatico