Completely unexpectedly a few days ago a drone approached the intensive care transport helicopter (ITH) “Christoph 54” of the DRF air rescue at the airfield in Freiburg shortly after its take-off. The DRF pilot did not have to evade on her mission flight to Lörrach, but the unmanned flight system suddenly got in her way up to a distance of five meters. Unfortunately not an isolated case: “DRF Luftrettung is observing this incident with concern, because situations of this kind are increasing”, said Dr. Peter Huber, board member of DRF Luftrettung.
The crew of “Christoph 54” wanted to transport a patient from Lörrach to Freiburg to the hospital at noon. Shortly after taking off from the station in Freiburg, at an altitude of around 70 meters, the helicopter pilot of the DRF Luftrettung noticed that something black was approaching her in the airspace. She quickly had to throw her initial suspicion that it might be a bird overboard: She could not see the flapping of its wings and the missile was already within reach. The pilot, who has been working for the red and white air rescuers for ten years, was able to spot a rectangular drone the size of an average-sized package. Before the transfer flight, the DRF Luftrettung crew had already received a message that an approved drone flight was planned. However, this flight was announced for a different time in the late afternoon. Fortunately, an evasive maneuver was not necessary. Without further ado, she reported this dangerous encounter to the airfield’s flight control in order to warn other pilots and those involved. In addition, she reported the incident to the “Safety Management System” (SMS) of DRF Luftrettung, which unfortunately has to observe these significant dangerous situations more and more frequently, because drones are becoming increasingly popular, especially with amateur pilots. The SMS monitors security incidents of this kind and also takes preventive action by specially training the helicopter crew of DRF Luftrettung on such dangers and constantly simulating new sources of danger. “A collision could have endangered the lives of our crew and taken on a dire extent,” says Dr. Peter Huber, board member of DRF Luftrettung, worried. The police have not yet been able to locate the tax driver and are now investigating. The authority is checking whether this unauthorized drone flight has violated the air traffic regulations.
Endangerment of the helicopter crew and patients
The safety of air rescue operations plays a major role. If a drone flies immediately and surprisingly close to a helicopter, it can pose a real risk to man and machine. “We take the current incident involving our colleague very seriously. We are therefore making an urgent appeal to hobby pilots and operators of all types of drones to adhere to the Drone Ordinance of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, which was reissued in March 2020 ”, said Dr. Huber. In general, any obstruction and danger at deployment locations for rescue crews, police and in the approach and departure areas of airfields is prohibited, emphasizes the board of directors of DRF Luftrettung. In principle, drones are not allowed to climb higher than 100 meters in Germany without other approval. For models weighing more than two kilograms, the pilots need proof of knowledge, also known as a drone license. In addition to airfields, gatherings of people, accident sites or hospitals for drone flights are taboo.
High fines for dangerous interference with air traffic
Drone flights in prohibited zones are subject to high fines because they pose an enormous security risk: Without an exemption, they are expressly prohibited at night and near airfields. Many flying robots are already equipped with integrated maps of predefined prohibited zones in their software and can only rise into the air after they have been activated. A drone crossing or flying over rotating rotor blades is extremely dangerous! Due to the suction effect of the rotors, the drone can be sucked in, causing damage to the helicopter. Even if there was no damage in Freiburg, our crew was hindered during a patient transport. “The DRF Luftrettung is in daily use nationwide with its red and white rescue helicopters, to bring quick medical help to people. In an emergency, every minute often counts. Drone users should be aware of this and neither approach nor fly over rescue helicopters or aircraft, “warns Dr. Huber.
Air traffic control reports 125 incidents involving drones
The sighting of the drone in Freiburg is unfortunately not an isolated case for DRF Luftrettung. Further case reports are recorded in the safety management system. “Most of the drones in Germany are controlled by amateur pilots. If they are maneuvered too recklessly in the air, they represent an acute danger in the sky, ”emphasizes Dr. Huber, a self-trained pilot. Carelessness and overconfidence turn fascination into a deadly trap. According to estimates by Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), there will be around 1.2 million drones in Germany in 2020. According to the DFS, there were 125 registered disabilities caused by drones in air traffic in 2019. The numbers are declining compared to 2018 (158 in number),
Professional use of drones is also an opportunity for DRF Luftrettung
The DRF Luftrettung sees in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV – unmanned aerial vehicles, colloquially as “drones”) not only a danger, but also an opportunity. It has developed a position paper with its own guidelines, for example when it comes to the transport of emergency medical equipment such as defibrillators. Likewise, in emergency care, blood or laboratory samples can be brought to their destination using drones. “The use of unmanned aerial vehicles for these purposes can under certain circumstances be considerably faster and more efficient than transport by ambulance or rescue helicopter,” says Dr. Huber. For this purpose, DRF Luftrettung is working on the pilot project MV | Life | Drone with the University Medical Center Greifswald as a cooperation partner. The “MV | Life | Drone – Pilot” project tested whether drones could in future fly defibrillators to first aiders and patients. With test flights in Penkun and Greifswald in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania at the end of 2019, research was carried out to determine whether this concept works, what organizational effort is involved and how well the concept can be implemented on site by first aiders who have not been instructed in the drone system . DRF Luftrettung supported the tests on site and provided their calculation algorithms after evaluating the simulation flights with the drones. what organizational effort is involved and how well the concept can be implemented on site by first aiders who have not been instructed in the drone system. DRF Luftrettung supported the tests on site and provided their calculation algorithms after evaluating the simulation flights with the drones. what organizational effort is involved and how well the concept can be implemented on site by first aiders who have not been instructed in the drone system. DRF Luftrettung supported the tests on site and provided their calculation algorithms after evaluating the simulation flights with the drones.
The DRF Luftrettung classifies the improper use of flying robots as a high risk with dire consequences for all air traffic participants involved. “Anyone who hinders or endangers the use of rescue helicopters risks human lives,” emphasizes Dr. Huber. Therefore, drones only belong in the hands of trained specialists or – in hobby flying – in places that are expressly approved for drone flight.
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