Michael Rudolph, Head of Airspace Safety Section, Aviation & Airports Safety Department Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: A live drone-intrusion warning system is now plugged in and on guard to alert Dubai Civil Aviation Authority when the safety of restricted airspace above Dubai International Airport is threatened, said DCAA authorities yesterday.

Following the temporary shuttering of Dubai airport three times since early 2016 due to illegal drone intrusions that threatened the safety of passengers, the new system will track flying drones and signal a red alert when the proximity of planes and sensitive flight paths in and out of Dubai airport are compromised.

Registered owners and operators of the offending drones will be notified by SMS within the tracking system and ordered to correct their course to immediately neutralise any imminent threat to international aircraft.

Drone operators who fail to adhere to strict new flying restrictions face fines up to Dh20,000.

Fully operational since July 1, the new Sky Commander Tracking Programme is a first in the global aviation sector and will greatly improve the safety of passengers flying through one of the busiest airports in the world, said Khalid Al Arif, Executive Director of Aviation Safety and Environment Sector, on an exclusive tour of the new drone-tracking control room at the airport yesterday.

“We want to ensure the safety of everyone and with this new programme in place, we can mitigate the risk,” Al Arif told Gulf News, surrounded by large screens depicting live air traffic and details of the SkyTrax online portal which tracks each and every registered drone. “This is the first step for us, the beginning of a journey.”

More than a month in full operation, the command room and its aerial vanguard system is the first of its kind in the world, said Michael Rudolph, DCAA Head of Airspace and Environment.

 We want to ensure the safety of everyone and with this new programme in place, we can mitigate the risk. This is the first step for us, the beginning of a journey.”

 - Khalid Al Arif, Executive Director of Aviation Safety and Environment Sector

“The DCCA is proud to finally see its live roll-out of the tracking portal system. We are now the first authority, and to the best of my knowledge, the only aviation authority to provide for the governance of tracking unmanned aircraft system (AAC) operations,” Rudolph told Gulf News. “It’s been a long process of a couple of years.”

“Consumers should have every confidence when they fly in and out of DXB. We have robust procedures in place for sightings, and the tracking system we are using provides data at a rate better than traditional radar,” Rudolph said. “The interconnectivity of our system allows us to track and follow any of our commercial [drone] pilots, so we have their history of every flight they take. Should they deviate more than 10 meters from the plan they submitted, a violation is automatically recorded on their file and we receive a message to let us know.

“The cost saving to the Dubai Economy is immense. For every disruption to commercial aviation operations that can be mitigated, safely, this is a huge saving not only in monetary terms but in people safety as well,” he said.

Operated in concert with a new set of mandatory registration regulations for all drone owners, the new tracking system requires all drone operators to file individual pre-approved flight plans in non-secure airspace zones that will be reviewed by DCCA aircraft management inspectors and then approved in as little as one day if the operator and flight plan is deemed safe by experienced staff.

Each operator request approved through a DCAA no-objection certificate issued for each drone flight dictates maximum height, speed, attitude, latitude and longitude for the operator to follow, said Rudolph.

For now, the first phase of the system is only monitoring and approving commercial drones while a second phase planned for a roll-out possibly in early 2018 will monitor all registered hobby and non-commercial drones..

So far, this year, Rudolph said there have been a mix of 1,689 commercial, hobby and government agency drones registered with DCAA as compared to 1,402 registrations last year.

Asam Khan, Chief Executive Officer of Exponent Technology Services, provided its SkyTrax programme for DCAA use and said he was pleased with preliminary results so far.

A valuable asset of SkyTrax is that all data recorded by each operator is archived within each profile and helps the DCAA keep tabs on the behavior of drone owners.

“We can pull up the flight data that an operator has done on any particular day,” Khan told Gulf News, adding that operators act more responsibly knowing their flight history is easily retrievable.

For example, of the 60 or so operators who were monitored in the last month, there were 106 alerts issued by the SkyTrack system for violating flight plans, 22 of which were for breaching altitude restriction and a further 44 for going out of their boundary limits.

Kellie Andrews, Air Traffic Management Inspector with DCCA, said the new tracking system gives a detailed history of drone operators to help the authority make better decisions when approving flight plans.

“With this drone explosion of interest, we now have non-aviation people coming into the aviation sector. Now we can do things to protect the safest industry [the aviation sector] in the world.” Andrews said.

Just what the doctor ordered

The Dubai Civial Aviation Authority’s new tracking programme may be just what the doctor ordered to answer a call in November 2016 by Emirates airline for a solution to thwart drone instrusions.

“Flight diversions and network disruptions due to unauthorised drone activity in the airspace around Dubai International Airport cost Emirates airline millions of dirhams on each occasion, and impacted thousands of passengers,” the airline said in a statement.

At the time, Adel Al Redha, Emirates’ Executive Vice-President and Chief Operations Officer, suggested that civil aviation authorities take strong action.

“Safety is always the number one priority in our business. Ensuring safe flight operations by closing the airspace when there is unauthorised drone activity, or other airspace incursions, is the right thing to do,” said Al Redha.

“However, the safety risk from unauthorised drone activity and the resulting disruption to customers and operations is unacceptable. We request the authorities to take strong measures and impose penalties to discourage future occurrences, and also consider implementing drone detectors at the airport.”