Aaditya Khimji and Thorsten Chmielus explain why the proliferation of drones must be met by proper regulatory guidelines in order to prevent potential catastrophes in the future
I remember when I was 19 I began to learn how to drive. I took 18 lessons in the UK, passed my theory test the first time and finally passed my practical driving test at the second time of asking – even then I’ll never forget the instructor shouting at me to ‘pay attention boy!’ as he handed me my certificate.
It’s hard to imagine that flying an aircraft would be easier.
I’m not talking about an A380, but something that has the potential to bring a superjumbo down from the skies.
Just before Christmas 2018, over 1,000 flights were cancelled at Gatwick Airport, near London, following reports of drone sightings close to the runway, affecting more than 140,000 passengers.
The consequences of an aeroplane striking a drone could be catastrophic and Thorsten Chmielus, CEO of Germany-based electronics firm Aaronia AG, tells Arabian Business, it has been ‘a miracle’ a serious accident has so far been avoided.
He says: “I’m still waiting for the A380 flying over an airport to be hit by a drone and then going up in flames. Then you have 800 people dead and then you’ll have people saying, ‘why don’t we have an airport protection system for drones?’ It will be too late. Now is the time.”
Thorsten has teamed up with Aaditya Khimji, managing director of R & N Khimji LLC, to install the world’s first drone detection system at Muscat International Airport, which is scheduled to be fully up-and-running by the end of the year.
Aaronia’s AARTOS drone detection system detects radio frequency (RF) to protect the surrounding areas of the airport, including the landing and take-off runways, right along the flight path. Unlike radar-based detection systems, which exhibit low detection and high false-alarm rates, while causing some interference with airport systems, AARTOS is an entirely passive radio frequency system employing artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
Depending on the individual system specification, AARTOS has a detection range of up to 50km, and can locate multiple drones operating across a range of frequencies. It also identifies the drone operator’s location, allowing security forces to apprehend perpetrators and to facilitate the safe landing of offending vehicles.
“If there is, for example, a location which is sensitive and you’re concerned about the safety and security of this area, if there’s someone flying nearby and they’re facing the other direction, our system can tell you where they’re looking and what they’re doing. So do you really need to bring this person down, do you really need to stop them? You only need to stop them if he is trying to do something malicious,” Khimji says.
He adds that, to sweep the complete spectrum in the past took six to ten minutes to cover the entire area once. However, the new Aaronia sixth generation system, which is currently being installed in Muscat, can sweep 190 times per second.
Khimji says the technology can cost anything from €100,000 ($109,900) to €10m ($11.01m) depending on how many modules are required, how many receivers and sites there are and how many areas are needed to cover.
Currently, there are countless drones across the world used for a variety of purposes – leisure, commercial, sports, military and defence. They have proven invaluable in terms of security surveillance and emergency situations and as a communication tool in areas with no cell phone signal. They have also been deployed successfully in IoT solutions in agriculture and environmental monitoring.
An FAA 2016-2036 drone forecast predicted that there will be about 7 million drones in the air by 2020. The FAA predicts that by the end of the decade, commercial drone sales alone will reach 2.7 million. To put that number into perspective, it is estimated that there are between 23,600 and 39,000 planes in the world today.
However, all that is required to fly a drone is that it be registered with the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).
Khimji says: “In terms of regulation, because the drone industry has picked up so quickly, there hasn’t really been time for countries to get involved and regulate. People are not trained in flying. Just like you’re licensed to drive a car, you should be licensed to fly a small aircraft. Whether it’s considered a toy or not.
“You’re not getting the driving license for the car, you’re getting the driving license for you. Right now, the regulations around the world, the license is for the drone. There’s no training for safety or best practices. People don’t even understand where they can fly.”
In February this year, Dubai International Airport was closed for around 30 minutes because of drone activity. It was shut for 55 minutes back in 2015 and the following year it was forced to close twice for 30 minutes and there was another closure spanning 55 minutes.
Eisa Al Hashmi, director of the conformity department at the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Meteorology (ESMA), has previously estimated the cost of closing an airport at AED350,000 ($95,302) per minute. However, Michael Rudolph, head of airspace safety at Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA), has put this loss much higher at $1m (AED3.6m) per minute.
Following Dubai’s previous incidents, strict implementation of drone licensing, registration, training and stiff penalties of jail and up to AED100,000 fines for operating in unauthorised locations were introduced.
The GCAA and DCAA forbid flying drones near, around and over airports. In addition, federal and municipal authorities disallow flying drones over residential areas to protect people’s privacy.
In order to fly a drone in Dubai, you have to obtain a no objection certificate from DCAA and, as previously stated, all drones must be registered with GCAA.
Chmielus says: “People often say with drones that you’re scared of the ones that know how to use it, you should actually be scared of the people who don’t know what they’re doing because the fool who buys it and doesn’t know he’s in the range of where the plane is going, he is more of a concern than the person who is trying to do something bad.
“That’s exactly what we’re seeing on the systems that we’ve already installed. What we’re seeing are not terrorists, what we’re seeing are idiots who want to take a picture of the aeroplane with the pilot waving, or if it comes worse, they simply lose the drone because of malfunction, and this drone enters the airspace of the airport by accident. That’s what our system is also protecting.”
It would come as no surprise then, to hear that the AARTOS drone detection system is much in demand, with new potential deals in the UK and Asia.
“We’re in talks with various parties around the region and also on the continent,” says Khimji.
Watch this space, or more specifically, watch the skies.