A drone detection radar will be positioned at the end of Auckland Airport's runway to prevent near-misses between planes and unmanned aircrafts.

It follows two near-misses at the international airport last month including an incident where an Air New Zealand flight from Japan was approaching the runway when a drone flew so close to the passenger plane the pilot thought it was sucked into an engine.

The move by Airways New Zealand, the air traffic control organisation, comes amid calls within the aviation industry to register drones, consider a licensing system and strengthen penalties for reckless operators.

Air NZ chief operations and integrity standards officer Captain David Morgan said the pilot of NZ92 from Tokyo could not take evasive action on March 25 because the plane with 278 passengers on board was already midway through its landing descent.


"The drone was sighted at 1400ft, about five miles from the end of the runway on the approach path and went straight past the aeroplane, not far from the captain's window."

Drones are not supposed to be flown higher than 400ft (120 metres), within restricted airspace, over private property, at night and must be in sight of the operator.

A new drone detection radar will alert air traffic controllers to drones in restricted airspace at Auckland Airport. Photo / Doug Sherring
A new drone detection radar will alert air traffic controllers to drones in restricted airspace at Auckland Airport. Photo / Doug Sherring

Currently a drone sighting at an airport temporarily shuts down the airspace forcing planes to be diverted and delayed.

But an Airways trial of a drone detection radar, set to begin in about four weeks, is aimed at spotting drones up to 9km away and 1700ft (518m) in the air.

Morgan said Air NZ was very supportive of the technology.

"That will allow the guys in the [traffic control] tower to detect a drone, and then warn the pilots that it's there."

Airways is in the process of implementing a three-to-six month trial of the radar system, costing several hundred thousand dollars.

Head of strategy Trent Fulcher said if successful the drone detection technology would be rolled out nationwide.


Compared to when drones were first available four years ago, Airways was dealing with 600 drone flights per week nationally, with 73 reported incidents in the past 12 months.

He said this was galvanising agencies to take action and had prompted Airways to trial the country's first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) traffic management platform in Christchurch and Queenstown.

The UAVTM app allows a drone pilot to see where they are allowed to fly, view rules, file a flight plan and get approvals, all within real time.

It's hoped the AirMap app will be available nationwide by the end of the year.

At the same time Airways is pushing for compulsory registration of all drones, following the lead of the United States where 820,000 drone operators are registered.

Registration means owners can be tracked and Fulcher said it could be as simple as paying $5 through the UAVTM app and registering the drone's serial number and the pilot's details.

Fulcher said Airways was not considering drone jamming technology like those being used at the Commonwealth Games because there were too many legal and safety risks.

Rod Vaughan believes a drone flew into his plane at right angles, smashing the windscreen and forcing him to crash land at Waihi. Photo / Andrew Warner
Rod Vaughan believes a drone flew into his plane at right angles, smashing the windscreen and forcing him to crash land at Waihi. Photo / Andrew Warner

Veteran TV journalist Rod Vaughan maintains the plane he was flying with his son over Martha's Mine at Waihi on March 28 was struck by a drone, forcing him to make a crash landing.

Vaughan said there was a reasonable argument for a drone operator's licence, similar to a firearm's licence, and he was in favour of registration.

"Any Tom, Dick or Harry can use them unsupervised without any training or instruction and knowledge of the rules."

The interim CAA investigation report into Vaughan's crash said the windscreen of the Aeroprakt Foxbat aircraft he was flying that day was "compromised, causing it to fail catastrophically".

It could not definitively point to a drone as the cause of the windscreen explosion, however Vaughan said less than 0.5 per cent of Aeroprakt Foxbat's have recorded windscreen failures out of about 1000 worldwide.

"So in this context the catastrophic failure of my windscreen was a most extraordinary event."

A CAA spokeswoman said the authority was concerned over recent near-misses but would not yet consider registration or licensing, instead relying on education campaigns.

She added that sophisticated technology now meant some models had software that prevented the drone from flying into controlled airspace or above certain heights.

UAVNZ chairman Andy Grant said commercial operators were responsible users and it was only a small group of recreational users and tourists who were being reckless and ignorant.

Meanwhile Morgan called for greater sanctions for breaking drone rules.

"What we're dealing with here is either the rogue guy or the people who have a drone and don't understand the rules.

"Because when you knowingly put a drone in the air, in the path of a large aircraft at the airport which has happened twice now in the last two weeks, you are putting people at risk. And people need to know when they do that there's going to be consequences."

Morgan has called a meeting between Air NZ, Airways, Ministry of Transport, CAA, the Airline Pilots Association and UAVNZ (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles NZ) to standardise a reaction plan to drones at airports.

Recent drone near-misses

January 3, 2018: Chilean tourist Jorge Raquelme-Cruz disrupts seven helicopters from fighting a scrub fire in Wanaka by flying a drone into their path.

March 6: A drone being flown near Auckland Airport forced about 20 approaching flights to delay their landings, including one flight from Japan diverted to Ohakea.

March 25: NZ92 from Tokyo encounters drone on landing approach at Auckland Airport.

March 28: Rod Vaughan crash lands at Waihi. The veteran journalist maintains a drone flew into his windscreen.

April 6: Drone at Manukau puts seven aircraft into a holding pattern at Auckland Airport while landings were temporarily suspended.

April 9: Close call between a drone and an Air Force helicopter at Whenuapai Air Force Base near Auckland, suspending operations temporarily.