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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Australian Transport Safety Bureau


ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Sterle ): Senator Xenophon, will you begin?

Mr Hood : Chair, I do have an opening statement.

ACTING CHAIR: Oh, sorry, Mr Hood.

Mr Hood : I am happy to table that if you like.

Senator XENOPHON: I love hearing your opening statements, Mr Hood.

ACTING CHAIR: What is it with all the opening statements today? Go for it.

Mr Hood : It is in recognition of the fine staff we have working for us at the ATSB, if I could have your indulgence, Chair.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, you have my indulgence.

Mr Hood : The first five months of 2017 have been challenging for the ATSB. Since 1 January this year we have released 57 investigation reports into accidents and incidents across the aviation, marine and rail transport modes. We have commenced an additional 42 new safety investigations since 1 January, some of which have been serious accidents and high-profile incidents.

In Perth, Western Australia, during the city's Australia Day celebrations, a Grumman American Aviation Corporation G-73 Mallard aircraft crashed into the Swan River. Tragically, the pilot and passenger died in the accident, which was witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators.

On 21 February this year, we launched an investigation into the accident involving a Super King Air at Essendon Airport in Victoria. The aircraft commenced take-off, rolled just before 9 am and, shortly after becoming airborne, struck the roof of the adjacent DFO complex. There was a significant post-impact fire, and the pilot and four passengers were fatally injured.

On 17 March, the right propeller of a Rex Saab 340B aircraft detached in flight with 16 passengers and three crew on board. Fortunately, the aircraft landed safely in Sydney. With invaluable assistance from the New South Wales Police Force Airwing, the ATSB recovered the 100-kilogram propeller assembly from bushland near Revesby. The ATSB's examination identified a fracture in the propeller shaft which led to the separation of the propeller. We have published a preliminary report, and the investigation has already resulted in safety action from GE, the engine manufacturer, and Regional Express.

Our investigations into these accidents and serious incidents are ongoing. While I am unable to provide additional comment at this time, I assure the committee that investigators are working hard to determine the causal factors. Importantly, we have published the second interim report into the in-flight pitch disconnect involving in a ATR 72 aircraft near Sydney Airport on 20 February 2014. Our investigations identified that transient elevator deflections during a pitch disconnect could lead to aerodynamic loads which could exceed the strength of the aircraft structure. As a result of our investigation to date, we have issued safety recommendations to the European and Australian regulators, EASA and CASA, as well as the manufacturer of the aircraft, ATR. These parties now have 90 days to respond to our recommendations. We have also released our research report A safety analysis of remotely piloted aircraft systems 2012 to 2016, which provides an in-depth analysis of the risks associated with RPAS in Australia.

It is now four months since the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was suspended. The ATSB's search team and the experts from many organisations, both in Australia and overseas, supporting the search worked tirelessly with absolute commitment, dedication and a single-minded focus to find the aircraft. They did this not just to provide the answers for the families of those on board but to improve transport safety. It was difficult and challenging work, and I would like to place on record my appreciation to all of those individuals from around the world who have been involved in the search for MH370. Our disappointment that we were unable to find the aircraft is profound.

Captain Chris Manning, the ATSB aviation commissioner and former chief pilot of Qantas, ironically enough appointed as a result of the Senate inquiry here and the Forsyth report, is present this evening to provide an update on the reopened investigation of the 2009 Norfolk accident, which is nearing completion.

Many challenges face transport safety into the future: there is significant growth in aviation, rail and marine transport, and we are seeing some of the effects of emerging technologies, such as automation and the use of remotely piloted aircraft or drones. I would like to thank the committee for inviting the ATSB to observe the Senate committee's drone inquiry on site in Dalby. The ATSB will continue to work with aviation, rail and marine operators, industry associations and regulators to highlight safety concerns identified from our occurrence data and investigation findings.

As I approach the end of my first year as Chief Commissioner of the ATSB, I am humbled by our achievements of my team and safety investigations and communication, trend analysis and prediction, and improved efficiency. While I acknowledge there is still work to be done, I am proud to lead a team which is committed to doing all we can to maintain and enhance transport safety in Australia. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Hood. When did you release your report A safety analysis of remotely piloted aircraft systems 2012 to 2016?

Mr Hood : We have issued two reports into remotely piloted aerial systems: one is a public report and one was a submission to the Senate inquiry. I think we issued the initial submission in early 2017. Is that correct, Dr Godley?

Dr Godley : It was by the due date; I think it was in late November.

Mr Hood : Late 2016, and our public report was issued 16 March 2017. They are the two pieces of work that we have done in relation to RPAS.

Senator XENOPHON: I think you said there is some irony in Captain Manning being here. I do not understand what that irony is.

Mr Hood : I am delighted that Captain Manning is here. I think you could not possibly have a more highly qualified aviator, and he is a very welcome addition to the ATSB.

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry, I do not get the irony.

Mr Hood : I suppose the irony was that the last time I sat here we did not have one.

Senator XENOPHON: That is right. I think some of my colleagues may have questions in terms of the issue of drones, and I do not want to cut across them—

ACTING CHAIR: Just go for it!

Senator XENOPHON: I want to focus on the Pel-Air incident. You are familiar with the Senate inquiry that looked into that. I think it was quite a comprehensive report. I know that my colleague Senator Fawcett, with his experience, had very valuable input into that report. Mr Manning, where are we at with that? What can you say publicly about that? And how can we be reassured that the process will be robust and independent? There were a number of concerns expressed by the Senate inquiry in terms of the way that report by the ATSB was conducted. I think it is fair to say that there was a perception or a view taken by the committee, including me, that the pilot in question was treated as something of a scapegoat in terms of the investigative process.

Mr Hood : There are a few issues in relation to that. I am not sure about Senator Rice. I am aware that Senator Sterle, Senator Fawcett and you, Senator Xenophon, were members of the committee when the Senate inquiry was conducted. The ASRR—

Senator XENOPHON: And Senator Heffernan but, sadly, he is no longer—

Senator RICE: It was before my time, correct.

Mr Hood : For Senator Rice's benefit, an accident occurred in 2009 with two pilots, a patient, a doctor and a nurse on board a Westwind aircraft travelling from Samoa to Norfolk Island. They ended up ditching off Norfolk Island. An investigation was conducted. That was published by the ATSB. There were some concerns expressed about the quality of that investigation and the depth in which it examined the issues. Therefore, a Senate inquiry was constituted into the Aviation Safety Regulation Review. Out of that came a peer review of the ATSB by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, who observed that, whilst the ATSB has some world-leading practices, it did not necessarily follow all of those in the conduct of that investigation. The investigation was reopened, and we are close, now, to finalising that investigation.

At the time, in 2009, I was employed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority as the executive manager of operations. Therefore, in taking the position as Chief Commissioner of the ATSB, I declared a material conflict of interest. I did not think it was appropriate for me to be an approving authority for the reopened investigation. I declared that to both the minister and to the ATSB commission. As a result, I have not been privy, at all, to the development of the reopened investigation; instead Captain Manning has assumed the role of the approving authority within the ATSB. In matters pertaining to this, Captain Manning is able to answer those questions, and I will pass it across to him.

Senator XENOPHON: If you could, Captain Manning. You are the former chief pilot for Quants.

Mr Manning : Yes, I am.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you tell us where we are at with that investigation and what your role is to oversee the new investigation, including an approximate timetable of when we should expect to see this report, where we are at and what your role is. I will start off by asking you the obvious question: have you had a chance to read the Senate inquiry report into this particular issue?

Mr Manning : Yes, I have, and I have read the report itself. It is now 90 per cent complete. The last 10 per cent is ready for peer review. I am told that it will go out to directly involved parties within four to five weeks as of today. I contacted the investigator today. I have read the report. It is 450 pages long. I have not seen a report that large in all my years.

Senator XENOPHON: How long was the original report into the Pel-Air incident?

Mr Manning : Significantly less. It was a very short report. This is a significant report. It will go to directly involved parties within, say, five weeks. They normally have 28 days, but, because this report is so large, I think 60 days would probably be more appropriate. After their comments, if any, have been taken into account, a final report will be ready. Hopefully, after the 60 days, that will be four weeks at the most. So I am expecting the final report to be ready at the end of September. Five days prior to that release, I am happy to give any senators who require it a briefing on it.

Senator XENOPHON: It may be appropriate, through you, Chair, that, through this committee, that offer could be made so that the committee as a whole, given the committee's history—the committee could notify individual senators who were not directly involved. I take it that Senator Rice may well have a real interest in it even though she was not part of the original inquiry. I think that would be a very welcome place to look at that.

Mr Manning : My pleasure.

Senator XENOPHON: From my point of view, I appreciate what Mr Hood said, that he recused himself from this inquiry, which was an entirely appropriate thing to do. How can we be assured that the process is robust and fair, that natural justice has been served and that the matters raised by the Senate committee report, which raised concerns about the investigative process to begin with, have been adequately taken into account?

Mr Manning : I think you will find the Canadians found that the ATSB's processes were okay; they just did not follow them in that instance.

Senator XENOPHON: It is very problematical when you do not follow processes, isn't it?

Mr Manning : Yes. They have followed the process. I have read the report. I have read the recommendations. It is a totally different report to the last report.

Senator XENOPHON: Obviously, it is not appropriate to canvass what is in it.

Mr Manning : No, I will not, but it is totally different. The processes we have now at the ATSB will ensure that, just like any other report, it is fair and balanced.

Senator XENOPHON: And it would look at broader issues of systems in that space?

Mr Manning : Yes, it certainly does.

Senator XENOPHON: Again, if it is not appropriate for you to comment, I respect that. One of the issues that struck me was that issues of pilot responsibility are important, but, if a pilot operates within a safety system or an environment or a culture—I say this within broad terms—that is something that is also quite important if you—

Mr Manning : Extremely important.

Senator XENOPHON: If you have a relatively young pilot, for instance, under pressure to perform in a certain way in an environment that may be quite challenging in terms of a corporate culture that may be quite challenging, that is a factor—

Mr Manning : It is all about systems and culture. You are correct.

Senator XENOPHON: I will not take that any further. Thank you very much.

Senator STERLE: My question is going to go to you, Captain Manning. You are the expert here in my view. I am wound up like a clock over drones zapping around, because I am led to believe—because we have had your report, and we have gone through it, and we have heard from ATSB—that these remotely piloted aircraft systems do pose a transport safety risk. This is the ATSB. You go on to say that the ATSB concluded that the close monitoring of drone-related safety occurrences is required because of the growth in the popularity of these. Why are they a risk to aircraft?

Mr Manning : Anything in the air is a risk to an aircraft, whether it is a bird, an animal or an RPAS.

Senator STERLE: Captain Manning, I do not know if you heard the evidence coming from CASA in the other room. I am not going to put words in CASA's mouth, but I took that CASA sort of brushed it off as, 'Well, you know, one bird strike'—if there are a lot of birds then we have a problem. Am I on the wrong plane here? I do not mean aeroplane; I mean on the wrong tangent. Am I missing something?

Mr Manning : I have several hats here. If I put my ATSB hat on, we are the canary in the mine. We tell people. If I put my ex-pilot hat on, you are right. There is an issue. How it is addressed is extremely difficult, and I think, as CASA said, this is not easy. It has got away from regulators around the world. We are regulating in reverse. I do not know the answer, but it is an issue.

Senator STERLE: I am not going to put you on the wrong plane. I will not do that. I will come back to you Mr Hood. With the two kilogram or less drones that the ATSB tell us can be purchased from JB Hi-Fi or Dick Smith, or wherever it may be, would you support the committee's concern about some form of licensing. If you cannot comment, I am quite comfortable. You are the one who gets the written reports about drones having interactions with planes. In all fairness, the ATSB has no idea who owns them. Is there any other practices that you think would help your work, and possibly CASA's work, in terms of some form of identification or maybe some training. If you are uncomfortable, you do not have to answer.

Mr Hood : No, Senator, I am very comfortable, thank you. I might just take a few things from that. Firstly, I did review your nephew's report out of Rockingham when we discussed it—

Senator STERLE: Good—I have not spoken to him since.

Mr Hood : It is very interesting because it is one of the challenges that face us with what we call 'encounters with drones.' A pilot will see it for a fleeting moment going down the left or right-hand side or up or below and then lose sight of it, so in terms of registration markings on drones et cetera that is not necessarily going to deliver a good result. I will throw to Dr Godley in a moment, but there are a couple of things I would like to reiterate. Our publicly released report on 16 March 2017 on A safety analysis of remotely piloted aerial systemsdoes have a safety message that says:

The operation of remotely piloted aircraft is an emerging risk to transport safety that requires close monitoring as the popularity of these aircraft continues to rapidly grow.

So we have flagged that publicly, we flagged that to the Senate committee and we also flagged that to the regulator.

Our analysis shows that in the five years from 2012 to 2016 there were 180 occurrences and 108 of these were near encounters. What we define as a 'near encounter' is where an aircraft had to manoeuvre to avoid the drone. There were a number more than that, which Dr Godley will talk about, but they were considerably further away from the aircraft. The majority of these were above 1,000 feet and one-third of the reported encounters were in the Sydney Basin. We also had 52 collisions with the terrain where RPAs had lost control and collided and crashed. As Senator O'Sullivan pointed out earlier, our prediction is that the reported occurrences involving drones in 2017 will double the numbers reported in 2016. I might ask Dr Godley, whose team is the author of the report, to elaborate on your question.

Senator STERLE: Yes, if you could. Thanks Mr Hood.

Dr Godley : I will elaborate a bit on what Mr Hood said about what a near encounter is. We defined it as being where the aircraft had to manoeuvre, or would have manoeuvred if there was an opportunity, to maintain a safe distance from an RPA. What is not included are the sightings from several miles away. We had a number of those that we do not refer to as incidents because they were never going to collide with the aircraft; there was never a separation issue between the two aircrafts. We do not necessarily collect that data and it does not necessarily get reported to us. It is only those where they are fairly close.

What we did find with our research is that, of course, we could not identify any of the 108 RPAs involved. Firstly, they do not require markings but, even if they did, we still would not know who they were. The only way we would be able to identify them is if they had a transponder-type marking, But obviously that includes weight, and whether it is even feasible to put something as heavy as a transponder on an RPA, so that authorities could identify them, is a matter for someone else, not me.

Senator STERLE: Right.

Dr Godley : I was just trying to answer your question.

Senator STERLE: No, you are helping me out. It is not as simple as putting a license plate on it. I will ask ATSB this. There are, obviously, technologies that limit the height that these drones can go to, there is geo-fencing and there are a number of issues that can be addressed. Is that correct? Is that your area of expertise?

Dr Godley : It is not really. I am sure there are, and you would need active policing of that as well, in the same sense that there are laws against lasers, but we still get them imported into Australia and they still get shone at aircraft.

Senator STERLE: There are a number of things we can look at. My frustration, and the committee's frustration is that no-one is looking at anything—or they are looking, but no-one is doing anything.

Mr Hood : Just to reinforce that we are looking—

Senator STERLE: You guys are looking. You are doing your best. Hang on, I will rephrase that: you are doing your best. You are the one that has to clean up the mess after. There is nothing nice about your job. Others aren't doing anything about it, and I am not mentioning CASA. CASA are doing stuff all.

Senator RICE: I do not want to take up too much time, but on the issue of drones, it is refreshing to hear your findings in that report. I think they will be taken very seriously in our Senate inquiry into drones. It is a big concern of this committee.

I want to ask about the Essendon crash inquiry. I know it is still under investigation, so there are probably things that you cannot share with us. Can I have an assessment of how it is going at the moment. I am then particularly wanting to focus on the issue of the ground-side issues associated with the crash.

Mr Hood : Obviously, a very tragic event occurred at Essendon airport on 21 February 2017. We have a four-person investigation team conducting the investigation. I deployed myself with the team of four to the site at Essendon. It was amongst the worst sites that I have seen in my entire working career. Our sympathy goes to the families of the pilot and the four American people on board that aircraft.

The ATSB retrieved the cockpit voice recorder and conveyed that to our facility in Canberra. It was downloaded successfully. Unfortunately, the accident flight was not recorded; the cockpit voice recorder was not serviceable at the time. Although we were able to recover data, the data we recovered was from a flight some five weeks previously, so we were not able to—

Senator RICE: How often does that occur? We like to think the black box recorders are going to have critical information on them.

Mr Hood : It is remarkably good technology now. It was developed by Dr David Warren back in the 1950s. It is a fine Australian invention. If we talk about the accident at Norfolk Island, for example, the solid state cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were in the water for the best part of seven years and we were still able to recover data from two units that had been in the water for that long, which I understand is a world record.

I will ask Stuart Macleod—at the moment, the general manager for aviation investigations—to chime in, but in relation to that accident, the investigation is still under way. I think you quoted from our website that there are a number of ongoing lines of inquiry. Things are seldom what they seem in early stages of an investigation, so we are being very careful not to inject any bias into that space currently.

Mr Macleod : As Mr Hood said, there are a number of aspects that we are looking at, including what you refer to earlier about review of approval process for the building that was struck. As it stands at the moment, one of the things the investigation will need to determine, essentially, is how critical that building was, or if that building had not been there, it would have continued on and struck something else.

Senator RICE: That is actually more than what is on your website—the review of the approval process. You are actually looking at the whether the building actually being there was a critical factor?

Mr Macleod : The essential thing at the moment is to try and ascertain, more proximally, the actual circumstances of the accident in terms of what led to it. What was identified in the preliminary report was that there was no evidence of pre-impact failure with either of the engines. That is what we have at the moment. But, obviously associated with the aircraft, there are a number of systems there. Essentially, the way that the process will work is that we are starting at that base level in terms of the occurrence itself and that will guide the investigation. If we have a situation where we get more information to know whether or not the aircraft had any level of control and, therefore, what options were available to the pilot, that will, obviously, influence in terms of what was struck and whether there were other options.

Senator RICE: And, if there was more of a safety zone around the airport, whether that would have made a difference.

Mr Macleod : Yes. And that, obviously, is contextually dependent on the options available to the pilot. That is all I meant by that. As far as the investigation goes, at this stage we are looking at having it publicly released within the 12 months, so that would be February of next year, essentially, at this stage.

Mr Hood : I might add that Mr Macleod, is a very highly respected former armoury officer and a pilot, with experience with military Black Hawk helicopter. He leads a very fine team of investigators. I am confident they are going to leave no stone unturned.

Senator RICE: I have one more quick question following on from your opening statement, Mr Hood, about the Regional Express incident and the identification of a fracture in the propeller. Again, I know it is an investigation that is underway, but can you comment on one of the issues that has been raised with me? I do have a particular interest, being a regular Rex flyer. I want to know whether it continues to be safe to fly on these Rex planes. I have been told that the issue is on the older planes where components of the Rex planes, unlike modern planes where various components have a use by date, essentially, do not. Is that the case?

Mr Hood : We have not seen this at all before in Australia, so this is a first event for us. When we recovered the propeller for examination, from the forests of Sydney's Revesby, the General Electric representative came out from the states. We had a number of representatives from CASA, the aircraft manufacturer and Rex, themselves. I have to say, it has been a very cooperative venture in relation to finding out exactly what happened and to prevent any kind of recurrence. General Electric issued a service bulletin, which required operators to examine what they call their 'life leaders'—the oldest aircraft in the fleet. The one that suffered the cracking and the separation of the propeller was one of the oldest aircrafts in the fleet. That was actually affected on the remaining life leaders of Rex yesterday in Wagga. Those details are being fed back to the engine manufacturer. I am anticipating that, before very much longer, we will see a further service bulletin from the engine manufacturer, which may mandate a further inspection regime. It is not just a visual inspection, it is called an NDT inspection. It is a detection that might be required to use dye or X-ray equipment, for example, to have a look at the health of those propellers, but there is nothing at all to suggest that there is any further risk to the Australian travelling public, currently. Otherwise, the ATSB would have issued an immediate finding and recommendation.

Senator RICE: But was it the case that there was not a regular inspection regime that was required for these propellers?

Mr Hood : I will get Mr Macleod to confirm it. My understanding is that there was not a mandated inspection regime that would have detected this type of crack.

Mr Macleod : That is my understanding as well. There was no requirement.

Senator RICE: Are there other components that do not have a mandated regime on planes like these?

Mr Macleod : Speaking generally, there are some components that do not. They are what we call 'on condition', so there is no requirement to inspect components.

Senator RICE: That sounds like a concern to me, given instances like this. So is it a concern to the ATSB that there are planes flying in Australian airspace that do not have regular inspection regimes required?

Mr Macleod : To the extent that I can comment on it, because I am not an aeronautical engineer, there is extensive engineering that goes into every component on an aircraft in terms of determining how fit for purpose it is. I can only assume that in that regard the initial design engineering took account of that in terms of whether or not there had to be ongoing inspections.

Senator FAWCETT: They have made the assumption, as you say, that at the initial certification a whole range of fatigue and load testing would have been done and that there has been analysis of the batch globally to seek similar issues, as well as looking for incident reporting on this particular installation—I assume it has been swapped between various airframes over its life—to check that there have been no sudden stoppages or other incidents that could have put a shock loading on it.

Mr Macleod : The specifics of that I am not aware.

Senator FAWCETT: But, from an ATSB perspective, I am assuming that is the sort of thing that you guys would be pursuing in terms of your determination if there was a short-term safety issue to address.

Mr Hood : Certainly in relation to the Rex Saab combination of the driveshaft, the gearbox and the propeller, there was one previous incident in the United States in 1991. The causal factor appeared to be in the melt—if you like—the initial metal that was put into making the driveshaft. To our knowledge that is the only other event of that nature on the Rex Saab 340 aircraft that we could find in our research.

Senator RICE: Am I right to presume that with most aircraft flying in Australia there is a regular inspection regime? That is what I had presumed was the case.

Mr Hood : Certainly the modern jet aircraft that you would fly in every day have an inspection regime and a life span for the majority of their parts. They are called time-expired parts. If they run out, they have to replace them, and there are inspection regimes with these airlines to ensure that, if a widget that holds the door shut is at the end of its usable life, it is replaced before it is at the end of its life.

Senator RICE: Yes, it is replaced.

Mr Hood : Modern airlines and maintenance regimes in Australia are very thorough and, in my view, the travelling public are well served by those regimes.

Senator RICE: But that is for those that are inspected, but, as this Rex incident has shown and has brought to light, there are planes flying in Australia that do not have to have that inspection regime.

Senator FAWCETT: No that is not an accurate statement.

Senator RICE: No?

Senator FAWCETT: There are some components—

Senator RICE: Okay, well, there are some components on some planes.

Mr Hood : This is the first time we have seen the failure of that type of component and, obviously, we are taking it seriously, as is Rex and as is the manufacturer of that particular driveshaft.

Senator RICE: I know that there are lots of components in aircrafts, and this might be a naive question, but in order of magnitude how many components or how many planes are we talking about? What proportion do not need to be inspected and are essentially relying upon the design at the beginning of their life?

Mr Hood : I am also not an engineer, so I will take that one on notice. I did see recent YouTube footage where more than three million parts are put onto a modern aircraft these days. But I will check.

Senator FAWCETT: To fill that in: beyond the design, for something that is not going to have regular through-life inspections, there are fatigue cycles that will literally put an airframe or other component through testing that is multiple times more than the aircraft life is expected to go, and that is the proof that you do not need to have regular inspections, because they have actually done that test.

Senator RICE: Would that have occurred in things like this Rex propeller?

Senator FAWCETT: You would assume so.

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Abetz ): They tell me that some people go up in test flights to do these things from time to time. Is that correct, Senator Fawcett?

Senator FAWCETT: Only if they have an ejection seat.

ACTING CHAIR: That is what Senator Fawcett used to do.

Senator Nash: Apparently so.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes. He is a well-informed witness. I will suspend the committee now until 7.45 pm.

Mr Mrdak : We will resume with ATSB continuation.


Pro ceedings suspended from 18:39 to 19:48

CHAIR: We now resume the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee estimates. Senate Back has some questions, but first I have a couple on my little chestnut, the drones. I noticed a number of releases that the ATSB has made in relation to drones. I do not know if you have been watching proceedings all day, but there has been an expression of frustration by some senators in relation to an awareness around drones. Mr Hood, I refer to a release you put out that talks about the fact that the number of encounters is increasing. Let me just pick up on some of the highlights of this release. There is the prospect that the number of drones are doubling—or you expect that they might double by the end of this calendar year. I think it is fair to draw the inference that there has been an increase in occurrences relative to the increase in the number of drones that are perhaps in circulation. In your release, you talk about 180 occurrences between 2012 and 2016, with not quite 80 per cent but a very significant percentage of those having occurred in 2016. I have two questions, Mr Hood. The first one is: do you put the increase in occurrences as being potentially attached to the number of drones we see in circulation?

Mr Hood : Just a little bit of background: we have prepared two major submissions—one for your committee on drones and the other one for public release, entitled A safety analysis of remotely piloted aircraft systems,which was released on 16 March 2017. In that submission the ATSB identified:

The operation of remotely piloted aircraft is an emerging risk to transport safety that requires close monitoring as the popularity of these aircraft continues to rapidly grow.

I will ask Dr Godley to speak specifically to this. He is much more of a statistician than I am. Certainly, in terms of the instances, 108 out of the five-year sample were classified as 'encounters'. An 'encounter' means where the aircraft had to manoeuvre or they should have manoeuvred to avoid the RPAS. The majority were above 1,000 feet and a third of those were in the Sydney Basin. So, in terms of the relativity, Dr Godley, are you able to answer that question?

Dr Godley : I believe the answer to your question is yes. We found a very strong correlation between the numbers of RPAS and occurrence rates.

CHAIR: A suggestion was made by a previous witness tonight that these might be—and this is my phrase, not the witness's—UFOs. It might not really have been a sighting of a drone; it could have been something else and people have thought it was a drone. To what extent do you test a report? I imagine you would be satisfied that they were indeed unmanned aircraft before they go into the sorts of statistics that are published.

Dr Godley : Yes, that is correct. We have a number of things reported to us, including sightings from far away, but they are not included in these statistics for near encounters. The near encounters are close enough that the separation is uncomfortable for the pilots and they need to take manoeuvring action or they would have if they had had time. So the RPA is fairly close. I am very confident that in the majority of instances—99 per cent of the time—if a pilot thinks they have seen an RPA, it is an RPA. We get bird strike reports all the time, where the pilots report that they have hit a bird, and it was a magpie or a pelican. So I believe in most cases pilots can identify an RPA; it is not a bird.

CHAIR: This question may go to you, Mr Hood, or you will send it to where you need to. Is this an area of concern?

Mr Hood : I think the safety message out of our report that is publicly available is that it is 'an emerging risk to transport safety that requires close monitoring as the popularity of the aircraft continues to grow'. Certainly, the ATSB's role is to be the canary in the mine, if you like, and that is to monitor this very closely. We have included all of our views in our submission to the Senate inquiry.

CHAIR: I have asked the question today—and I have had difficulty in communicating it—about the value of the two bits of tin. You are in airspace in a fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft and then you have a drone—and let's not at this point talk about the weights and profiles of drones. They are two bits of tin, in effect, or two inanimate objects that are coming together at great speed. From an air safety point of view, is there—I am having difficulty expressing this—is there a value put on one over the other?

Mr Hood : Senator, I have been watching the coverage all day, in terms of the various agencies—

CHAIR: So you have seen my struggles!

Mr Hood : I think our answer is that there is very little empirical data, currently, to predict what the outcome of a collision could be, and I think we talked about that at the estimates hearing in October. The mathematical modelling suggests that on larger aeroplanes, the flight services could be damaged, and the penetration of an airliner's airframe is possible. Engine ingestion could lead to a failure; however, as RPAs do not normally fly in flocks, a double-engine-failure risk with RPAs is very low. Whilst an RPA could penetrate the windscreen of a general aviation aircraft, it is unclear whether they could penetrate airline windscreens. Other major risks to general aviation include damaged flight services, propeller damage, and engine ingestion—and in fact, only in recent months, we have published a report where a light aircraft took a wedge-tailed eagle through the canopy. The pilot was temporarily blinded, declared a mayday, and diverted to Bathurst. I know it is not a fulsome answer that you have been after—a yes or no—but the current research indicates that there are so many variables in terms of the consequence of an RPA collision with, let us say, a jet airliner.

CHAIR: In an imperfect set of circumstances, where the direction of travel of both of the objects means they come into contact at a particular angle—with the air speed, and where they happen to be, particularly in relation to the aircraft and what has taken the attention of the pilots—the risk remains for a catastrophic event. Is that correct?

Mr Hood : Senator, the risk remains of collision, and—you have quoted the stats, Senator—we anticipate that the number of close encounters is due to double in 2017 as opposed to 2016. We have not had any collisions yet. We have been working closely with the United Kingdom and with the United States. The United Kingdom is just starting now to do some of that testing; the United Kingdom is having a look at, for example, throwing a drone down a jet engine, and we are following that very closely. Dr Godley, have you got anything to add to that?

Dr Godley : Yes. Just to follow on, basically you have got two types of aircraft. You have got the air transport/airliner sort of aircraft, and you have got the general aviation aircraft. The airliner aircraft are built very, very strong, and to a much higher spec than GA aircraft, and that is mostly for bird strikes but for other things as well. In this report that we have published, we have looked at the research: we have looked at the Monash study that you referenced earlier but also at other research all around the world, and there is some newer research coming out of Europe now. But essentially, there has not really been much actual data, so all we have based it on—or, basically, what the world is basing it on—is bird strikes. We can say things like, if drone strikes become common—as common as bird strikes—you could expect eight per cent would involve an engine ingestion. We know that when birds go inside engines, 20 per cent of those incidents lead to engine damage. For a drone, we would expect it to be at least 20 per cent, but because they have things like dense batteries and cameras, maybe that percentage is going to be higher. But we do not really know that much yet.

CHAIR: Mr Hood, why do we require aircraft to register? Why do we give them a number and an identity and, in fact, make them publish that on the aircraft?

Mr Hood : Our role in the ATSB, really, is the canary in the mine, if you like. So we look at the data and we report the data, but we are an independent statutory authority, so the actual decision-making—we bring this to the attention of those that make the decisions.

CHAIR: No; I am asking you as you are in the industry, or the profession. Why do you think it is that we require each aircraft to have its own identification number that is displayed on the fuselage?

Mr Hood : I suppose so we can find out who might have transgressed the rules, Senator.

CHAIR: Okay. Why do we make pilots go through, you know, 120 hours of preparation and training, and send them off to the doctor to check that they have not got a heart murmur? Is there a reason for that?

Mr Hood : Certainly, Senator. We in the ATSB are actually going through this process at the moment. We—for investigation purposes—have just purchased our own drone, a Phantom 4, and, like a good professional training organisation, we have just graduated our first six pilots—appropriately trained; they did a week-long course. Even one of our investigators with a rail background has now undertaken the course, which includes the operation of the aircraft and all of those rules in relation to being far away from an aerodrome and below 400 feet et cetera.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have identification numbers on that drone?

Mr Hood : Sorry, Senator?

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have any identification? How do you know it is your drone?

Mr Hood : No, we do not. But we will be applying for a CASA user operating certificate—

Senator GALLACHER: So your drone could be up there with my drone and we would not know the difference?

Mr Hood : That is correct.

CHAIR: On the issue of pilot training, supervising their activities, updating their training and making sure that they understand things about aeronautical principles and air traffic control: why do we do that? I am not trying to be too simplistic, Mr Hood. I am going somewhere with this.

Mr Hood : Senator, I think you raised earlier with another agency: 'Why don't you put out a survey to find out how many people are actually out there doing education, or following the piece of paper in the drone pack and going to the CASA website?' I did discuss that with Dr Godley. As you said, more than 50,000 drones have been purchased in Australia. It would be difficult for us to track down who has bought them—

CHAIR: I am sure that is true.

Mr Hood : and ask them to complete that kind of survey.

CHAIR: Sure. The henhouse gate has been open all night to a certain extent. I am happy for any of your people to make a contribution, because I really think that you are at the coalface of this. Even though you are not responsible for the regulation and the oversight of it, you are going to be the one with the mop and bucket who goes along when an event occurs. I led my other question with the horse and cart reference. In a better world, wouldn't we have worked through the issues to ensure that the individual on the ground who is in charge of the drone at least has a level of competence that reflects their ability to understand certain things about avionics and aviation? We would test their responsibility. We do this with drivers licences and firearm applications and a whole range of other things. In a better world, wouldn't it be better that we worked all that through and got that in a stabilised position before we allowed the proliferation of these other bits of tin in the air?

Mr Hood : Do any of my colleagues care to comment?

Senator GALLACHER: Can I just throw one other thing in. If I develop an algorithm or a program and take over your drone and fly it somewhere else, how do you know it is your drone? You say you have no identification, and you have six pilots trained.

CHAIR: Senator, they are two separate questions. Can we deal with the first one. It is a very important question. Let's deal with the first one.

Dr Godley : Sorry, what was the question again? I got disturbed by the second question.

Mr Hood : For Senator O'Sullivan's benefit, given you missed the opening, Captain Manning was the former chief pilot of Qantas.

Mr Manning : The answer is yes. In a perfect world, you are right. Before these came in it would have been nice to have the systems set up.

CHAIR: Given we have the ability to stop the retail of these things tomorrow, try and cauterize the 50,000 we have—if it is 50,000—and make some effort to track them, even though they own the drone we could put some rules in place about what they need to do before they put it up in the air. From a safety balance point of view, shouldn't we do that now?

Mr Hood : My view is that is one of the findings that could come out of the Senate inquiry. I do not know how your deliberations are going in that space, but certainly that is the spirit in which we prepared our submission to the Senate team.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. That is the first sane exchange I have had in this space all day.

Senator GALLACHER: I am really curious about how you protect your property. There are people capable of writing programs to take over anything, particularly remote controlled aircraft. How do we know that your drone is your drone, if someone else takes it over?

Mr Hood : Senator, I am not the drone expert for ATSB but certainly I will take your question on notice. I know that with any electronic frequency spectrum you can jam, you can interfere and potentially, if you found the right frequency, my understanding of basic electronics is that you could actually take over the control of that drone.

Senator GALLACHER: And you do not have any identification marks, no computer chips?

Mr Hood : At the moment the Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations—we are talking about part 101—do not require that.

Senator STERLE: It is all right. It is okay.

CHAIR: That is not the evidence we have had here. This is I think the first time we have had at least someone who shares our deep concerns in relation to this issue. Does anyone else have any questions? I know Senator Back does. Can we try and find Senator Back?

Mr Hood : I might add, Senator, that if we do have any other contributions as the Senate inquiry continues in relation to the RPAS space we will put in a supplementary submission.

CHAIR: We appreciate that. We are just going to wait for Senator Back, so if you have got any other questions-

Senator STERLE: No we exhausted ours earlier.

CHAIR: You are done? Could I ask if your team could just remain for a little while, Mr Hood?

Mr Hood : Certainly.

CHAIR: If Senator Back feels it is essential we will interpose you back in. Mr Hood and your team, thank you very much. I wish all estimates ran like that. We appreciate it and, if we do not get a chance to talk to you again, best wishes and safe travel back to wherever you are from.

Mr Hood : Thank you.