Cost – voluntary vs imposed
One point to note is that the cost of upgrading drones’ LEDs could be low – but spiral if this becomes a regulatory requirement. Nick Rice, managing director of lighting specialist Consolite Techology, advised: “The process for manufacturing an LED that would be visible in the IR is not complicated. The complication comes when it becomes mandatory and then regulated, at which time a specification would be written and, in all likelihood, become an EASA/FAA standard.” Such a standard would likely be demanding, said Rice, specifying for example intensities at particular angles, use of specialist testing equipment and regular company audits.
He continued: “Whilst aerospace lighting manufacturers are used to these requirements, the overheads of running a company with the relevant certifications are quite high due to these needs. This may make the unit price seem quite high when compared to the original, raw LED.”
So, there is potentially a window of opportunity here, drone makers. Opt now to adopt NVG/IR-visible anti-collision lights while the costs are low. If night-time collisions or near-misses with manned aircraft prompt the regulators to act, the price tag could escalate dramatically.
Currently, the extent to which aviation authorities have sought to regulate drones varies. For example, the FAA’s recent ruling requires UAVs to bear ‘appropriate anti-collision lighting’ (though note that, as above, the rule assumes daylight-only ops).
On the other hand, Richard Taylor, a representative for the UK Civil Aviation Authority, revealed: “At the moment, we do not have any oversight of the airworthiness of drones and so have no powers to make collision lights mandatory. Clearly, if drones are to be integrated into the airspace system, then they will indeed require identification markings, collision lights etc, but we are some way off that at the moment.”
“If you make lighting mandatory, make it NVG/IR visible”
While upgrading drones’ LED lighting would increase safety, there are other options on the table to reduce the likelihood of manned/unmanned aircraft conflict. For example, Eikelenboom stated: “I would suggest to make a transponder mandatory as well. This will make the full integration of drones into our airspace possible in a safe way.”
Compared to altering the LEDs, adding transponders could have greater cost, weight and power-draw implications (although minitiarised, low-power versions are being developed for UAVs). But an interesting side-effect would be that (depending on transponder type) the UAV’s location – and registration number – could show up not just to nearby aircraft, but also to the authorities such as air traffic control. I wonder what Casey Neistat would make of that.