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The Challenge In The Rising Use Of Drones

Over the past few weeks a number of the technology blogs and news sources I read regularly (particularly Harvey Nash Technology on Twitter) have been raising questions about the predicted rise in the use of ‘drones’ in the UK over the next 20 years, and inviting thoughts.

As both a technologist and a helicopter pilot, I’m in a good position to comment on that. However it’s not a topic which can be done justice in 140 characters on Twitter. I tried, failed, and so I thought I’d expand on it:

 

It’s not regulation.

I wasn’t quite accurate in my reply to Harvey Nash. It isn’t the regulatory framework which needs change; it’s the enforcement and awareness of it. The UK Civil Aviation Authority, who issue my pilot’s licence, are very clear on the rules for Unmanned Aircraft under 20kg in weight. Unless CAA permission has been granted, the pilot cannot:

  • Fly over or within 150m (492 ft) of a congested area
  • Fly over or within 150m (492 ft) of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons
  • Fly within 50m (164 ft) of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft
  • Fly within 50m (164 ft) of any person.

These rules are, by CAA and Air Navigation Order standards, relatively simple and clear cut – if you don’t believe me, try and easily interpret Rule 5 (Low Flying) on Page 329 of CAP393.

The purpose of the rules is really quite clear – to keep small drones away from the risk of hitting people unless special permission has been granted by the CAA.  The reason is that 20kg falling from several hundred (or even tens) of feet will hurt. A lot.

Most commercially available drones don’t have the required redundancy to deal with a failure, don’t have the same certification as aircraft, and don’t even have guaranteed communications with the controller.. so the risk of something untoward happening is high and must be mitigated.

It should be noted we’re given much more flexibility to operate Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) ‘drones’ in the UK (and most of Europe as EASA takes over) than in other parts of the world. In the USA, for example, there is a complete ban on UAS for commercial purposes!

Awareness -vs- Consumerisation.

So, if the rules are pretty clear, why are we seeing headlines like this:

Drones flown in London and Liverpool despite CAA laws

UK’s first drone conviction will bankrupt me, says Cumbrian …

The answer, and the challenge, is awareness. The consumer can go and buy one of these drones relatively cheaply – under £300, and they’re cool. What gadget nerd wouldn’t want one? For a lot of us they are the work of the science fiction of our youths.

But they come with no warnings about about the legality of operating them. This advert for a Parrot AR Drone on Amazon.co.uk contains only these safety warnings:

 

Amazon AR Drone Warnings.
The Only Warnings on Amazon AR Drone Advert

Where’s the big, bold, bright warning about legality of operating it?

We know that ignorance is no defence to breaking the law, but as unmanned aerial systems become more consumerised, and available, the manufacturers and retailers should surely draw to the attention of their customers that they run the risk of hurting people, and thus prosecution if they’re not careful about how they use their new toy!

Enforcement.

I’m certainly no CAA-apologist (even they, under their new leadership, admit they need to improve in many areas). But they simply aren’t resourced to police these rules to any great extent. By virtue of cost and licensing they have managed to police and enforce manned flight rules to date.

They are under-resourced to police and enforce these rules across the whole of the UK, and unless somebody reports incidents they most likely won’t be detected and dangerous situations could become commonplace.

The UK Government requires that the CAA’s costs are met entirely from its charges on those whom it regulates. Unlike many other countries, there is no direct Government funding of the CAA’s work.

So, should the UAS / Drone manufacturers start to contribute to policing and regulating the safety of the devices they make money from selling? That seems fair to me, as someone who pays CAA fees!

Historically The CAA have brought few prosecutions, in line with the internationally established ‘Just Culture‘ which encourages reporting (so we can all learn) and seeks to only punish wilfully negligent acts. How will they manage this when unlicenced consumers are involved?

It’s my view that they need to educate, then prosecute, and then highlight prosecutions to raise awareness.

The Future.

I love aviation. I love technology & gadgets. I embrace consumerism. However, to harness the huge possibilities of drones / UAVs we need to find a way to make them work safely in society – before a single incident occurs which results in an outright ban.  

We could look to making them a licence-able aircraft, but those in aviation will attest that this will be costly, cumbersome and probably kill the industry and its undoubted benefits and enjoyment. We know that licenced commercial UAV operators exist, and use much more expensive, complicated, and safe aircraft – let them undertake the commercial work over populated areas.

But for domestic and hobby drone-flyers: the manufacturers need to step up to the mark with awareness. Very few people set out to deliberately break the law (and where they do the likelihood of being caught, and subsequent penalty should be a huge deterrent)… but they need to be aware of the rules.

Should we mandate the inclusion of warning notices in the boxes and on the packaging?

I think so… what do you think?

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