Image: LATVIA CAA
A drone incident made headline news this month, and while that’s not exactly ‘new-news’, the circumstances of it certainly are.
On Saturday 2nd May Riga International Airport, not unlike many others across the world, faced the danger of a drone in airspace. But this incident, unlike any we’ve seen yet, saw them face the extraordinary threat of an unmanned drone which had gotten lost in airspace.
An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) manufacturer lost control of the 5.5 metre wide and 3.3 metre long drone, capable of speeds up to 70km/h, during a field test to review flight-length performance.
With a flying-time of up to 90 hours, and no way of tracking its whereabouts, the large drone proved a severe and unprecedented risk to aircrafts.
Uncontrolled and lost in the skies somewhere above the Eastern European nation, citizens were alerted and encouraged to report sightings while authorities put measures in place to find and disable the drone.
The aviation authority restricted flights below 19,500ft (6,000m) in the region while they searched for it.
Riga Airport were forced to close down or reroute all long-distance flights, including a Smartlynx flight from China scheduled Sunday 3rd May. Its landing was redirected from Riga to Tallinn.
Finding a small grounded object can be difficult enough, but locating an airborne one is like finding a needle in a haystack. That is, without tracking technologies such as radio frequency, acoustic sensors, optical sensors and, of course, radar.
Between the 2nd and 5th of May authorities tried in vain to find the runaway drone. Many members of the public reported sightings but none were able to be verified.
Theoretically, it was possible it had landed not long after it went missing, but there was no way of knowing for certain without physically discovering it.
The non-military drone’s extended flight times meant the risk couldn’t be fully eliminated until 19:10 local time Tuesday 5th May, when it would no longer have fuel to fly.
At that time airspace became safe and normal flight activity resumed, but to date we still can’t find any news of the missing drone’s discovery.
The location of its landing is bound to offer some insight into just how dangerous the lost drone’s trajectory was.
But the question isn’t when or where it’ll be found, but whether it marks a shift in the drone threat. With UAV’S becoming more and more advanced, could this be the first incident of more?
It’s a worrying notion, that, a bit like a wild mustang, a drone could throw its rider and bolt. Drones are becoming equipped with new, advanced technology to make drone flight more improved and autonomous.
And that’s not a bad thing. As we saw in our recent blog, drones can prove a real help to society in a lot of ways. Right now for instance, they’re even helping to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
But here we are, in this grey area, where capabilities are being experimented with but are not yet fully realised.
While the instance of the lost drone seems like a terrible, isolated example of the ways a field test can go horribly wrong, we have to ask, could it spell trouble for the future of drone, and especially beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), flight innovation?