Animation: Near misses between UAVs and airliners prompt NATO low-level rules review

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Incidents between UAVs and helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq prompt action

NATO is studying options for improving low-level airspace co-ordination in operational areas in response to an increasing number of proximity incidents involving manned aircraft and unmanned air vehicles.

The study, being run by NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) as part of research into improved UAV integration into NATO force structures, follows at least three incidents involving UAVs and helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

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© Bundeswehr

This close call between an airliner and a Luna UAV over Kabul highlighted a growing risk

Study co-ordinator Brig Gen Elia Baldazzi, JAPCC assistant director capabilities, says incidents giving rise to NATO concerns also include a near miss between an Ariana Afghan Airlines Airbus A300B4 with over 100 passengers and a German army EMT Luna tactical UAV. Flight International has obtained an animation sequence of images taken from the Luna’s daylight camera (pictured above). The incident occurred over Kabul on 30 August 2004.

“Due to the failure of the air traffic control tower to follow standard procedures, the two aircraft nearly occupied the same airspace at the same time. With a bit of luck the pilot avoided the crash,” says Baldazzi, who reveals that the aircraft missed each other by less than 50m (164ft). The airliner’s wake turbulence caused the UAV to crash.

“Airspace in combat areas is becoming increasingly crowded,” Baldazzi says. “The block of airspace from the surface up to 3,000ft is particularly crowded with small UAVs and helicopters. In south-west Asia there have been three collisions between UAVs and helicopters.” The need for improved arrangements is also being driven by restrictions being placed on military UAV usage in emergency relief and humanitarian operations by civil regulators.

The problem is expected to become more pressing as NATO member nations increase their UAV fleets, says Baldazzi, who adds: “Currently 15 of NATO’s 26 nations have unmanned systems in their inventories and the number is expected to grow.” There are around 775 UAVs operating in Afghanistan and Iraq and this number is expected to climb as the conflicts continue.

Traditional approaches to airspace deconfliction in battlefield areas are based on establishing restricted zones, assigning operational boxes and using ceiling limits determined on the basis of aircraft type. This has created problems, Baldazzi says, particularly in “friend or foe identification, especially where the battlespace is not linear such as in Afghanistan.

“We cannot afford deconflicted airspace,” he says. “We have too many aircraft that can fly at too many different altitudes; they are operated by too many nations and by too many different services. So we must become integrated.”

PETER LA FRANCHI / LONDON