Given the evolution of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as drones, the International Air Transportation Association (Iata) is working on three specific focus areas to ensure this new branch of aviation is safely integrated and transitioned into the global airspace.
The association, which is actively engaging on education and awareness of the need for regulation for safe, efficient and sustainable operations, has been concentrating on safety, air traffic management (ATM) and integrated operations.
“All of these areas are related. We need to make sure operations are safe, appropriate regulation and infrastructure is in place and operations are integrated,” Iata ATM infrastructure director Rob Eagles told media on Tuesday.
Speaking at Iata’s yearly global media day, in Geneva, he said there were many safety and security risks emerging as the rapid growth of drones continued, including a higher risk of aircraft accidents and incidents caused by the irresponsible use of an unmanned vehicle and the potential security threat posed by unauthorised use of UAS for malicious purposes.
Another concern was the unprofessional operation of recreational drones that could pose a threat simply because people were unaware of the risks to manned aircraft, he added.
In line with prioritising the first work area, namely air safety, Iata has been actively running an education and awareness campaign, which includes educational and safety videos, as well as videos outlining the need for progressive regulations.
Iata has also partnered with numerous industry players and continues to work closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao) in pursuit of greater awareness of the potential dangers of manning drones in close proximity to airports and the development of remote pilot training, licensing and medical requirements to ensure safety standards in nonsegregated airspace are not compromised.
Iata has also developed a UAS toolkit guiding the development of appropriate – and enforceable – regulations in light of a lack of harmonised international standards and concepts of operations for unmanned systems.
About 90 countries have implemented some form of local regulation for UAS activity.
Under the ATM work area, in collaboration with Icao, Iata aims to ensure drones operate within the existing airspace structures safely and without negatively impacting on the capacity and efficiency of manned aircraft.
Along with new standards and regulations, new airspace areas need to be defined, in particular below 500 feet and above 60 000 feet.
If regulated and operated correctly and safely, unmanned vehicle technologies can revolutionise future air transport, airport operations, cargo operations and ground handling, besides others.
“UAS offer new thinking methodology and opportunities to reshape the future for all airspace users (manned or unmanned). We just need to ensure that it is done safely and efficiently,” Eagles said.
Drones present significant opportunities to improve efficiencies, reduce costs and increase speed within the aviation industry, said Iata cargo transformation head Celine Hourcade, citing aircraft inspections and bird strike avoidance as two concrete examples.
Aircraft inspections, 80% of which are undertaken visually, take about six to ten hours at a cost of $10 000 for every hour the aircraft is not airborne, and require qualified personnel using cherry-pickers, elevators and other heavy equipment to find and log defects that “can be anywhere on the aircraft”.
The use of drones could accelerate the inspection process by 20 times, reducing the aircraft downtime and related costs, as well as enhance productivity of the inspectors and guarantee traceability.
The UAS could also be used for clear flight solutions and bird control, wherein drones, realistically mimicking the appearance and weight of birds, and through the combination of silhouette and wing movement, effectively “chase off” birds, she explained.
The opportunities within the industry are vast, particularly in airport and ground operations; drone transport of air cargo; and the eventual transport of passengers.
However, drones could also offer opportunities for improvements in sectors other than commercial aviation, including the transport of goods in both first-and last-mile delivery, supporting specialised delivery solutions in transporting emergency supplies to remote areas and acting as a first response to humanitarian crises and natural disasters.
“Larger drones that are under development could unlock communities without a transport infrastructure and could be, along with medium-sized drones, cost-effective alternatives to traditional aircraft,” Hourcade said.
Many trials were already under way in surveillance, automated inventory, parcel deliveries and humanitarian support, besides others, she concluded.