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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?

Fly Safe… a weird week in Aviation.

This past week I have been on holiday in Dubai with a friend who lives out here, and have been weirdly reminded of just how close to home the dangers of my hobby are.   Although I’m obviously aware of accidents, and indeed know people who were friends with those who have perished in accidents – I am as guilty as the next guy of thinking “it’ll never happen to me.”

Well.. 3 unrelated things have happened this week to remind me just how close it can be…

G-JERS

R22 - My Trainer
G-JERS

So, I pick up a copy of one of the flying magazines at the airport, for something to read on the flight – in the section where they list new registrations I notice G-JERS is listed as “Cancelled – Destroyed.”

I spent quite a lot of time in G-JERS.  It was the 4th aircraft I ever flew, and the first aircraft I flew solo.  A quick look at my log book and it seems I spent around 16 hours in it.

It doesn’t exist anymore… it was rolled during a training sortee at Cumbernauld Airport.  The AAIB report for it is here; and thankfully both student and instructor got out ok.  But that could have been me.  I hope that it doesn’t put the student off.  But it is a shame to see something so instrumental in my flying come to such a sad end.

G-INTC

Which make it even spookier then that when I got the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this week they had a helicopter simulator made from the cabin and end of a tail of an R22.  I didn’t have a go in it, it looked pretty basic and designed to appease the crowds.

It did occur to me though to have a look at the indestructable metal plate which is attached to the passenger seat on R22’s to see where this hull had originally come from.

Once again, close to home strikes:  it was a local machine, which was sold originally by Sloane Helicopters.  The people I trained with.  It has now ended up in the desert after a less than glamorous end, also involving training.  AAIB report.

Mallorca.

The really big thing… I got home from the Formula 1 qualifying on Saturday to see a tweet about two Britons being killed in a helicopter crash in Mallorca.  My heart quite literally sank.

I did some of my training in Mallorca, and have been back to fly there since.  The company I learnt with, Sloane Helicopters, have a base in Mallorca (which is very handy given the awful winter weather in the UK); so my fears were it was my friends, or a machine I knew, or both.

I was very relieved to find out a little while later it was not a Sloane’s machine.  There aren’t many helicopters on the island; but it turned out this one was a private machine which was hangared with Sloane Helicopters, and other than being friendly with owner the involvement stopped there.  It was an MD500.

There is more on the crash on the BBC, The Telegraph and The Guardian; but it really reminded me how close to home these things can be.  I hope the gentlemen concerned rest in peace…

… and for those of us still earth bound, but longing to be skyward bound:  fly safely friends.  Please.

An Aviator Passes.

It’s with a very heavy heart that I read reports this afternoon that one of the Red Arrows has crashed, and the pilot hasn’t survived.  The Red Arrows are a true credit to The Royal Air Force and are nothing short of absolutely awesome to watch — it’s impossible to describe just how skilled these aviators are.

I’m a happy chap if I can keep my airspeed and height within the standards expected of a newly qualified commercial pilot (which I am not, but no harm in aiming high) — these guys and girls fly fast jets at almost 4x my speed, often only inches apart.  It’s a real treat to watch.

I have had the privilege to see this years Red Arrows (part of the team changes every year) twice.  Only earlier this week they overflew my home town and my son had to ring me straight away to say he’d seen them again; and wanted to know why they had no smoke on – I was 150 miles away; but this gives you an idea of how inspirational they are; my 3 year old adores them.  I haven’t the heart to tell him one has crashed.

My thoughts are with the pilots family, friends and his colleagues; it’s always awful when a fellow pilot passes, especially when flying.  Rest In Peace.

Flying West

Capt. Michael J. Larkin 

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,
Where pilots can go, when they have to die-
A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer
For a friend and comrade, whose memory is dear;
A place where no doctor or lawyer can tread,
Nor management type would ere be caught dead;
Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;
The kind of place where a lady could go
And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And the songs about flying and dying are sung,
Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before.
And they’d call out your name, as you came through the door;
Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad!”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy
You had not seen for years, though he taught you how to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,
And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.
“For this is the place where true flyers come,
“When the journey is over, and the war has been won
“They’ve come here to at last to be safe and alone
From the government clerk and the management clone,
“Politicians and lawyers, the Feds and the noise
Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’boys
“Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest;
“This is Heaven, my son — you’ve passed your last test!”

7-5, Taken Alive??

Please don’t misuse it…

When learning to fly I was taught a mnemonic (one of many learnt during training), which helps me to remember the three very important transponder squawks which are used in varying emergencies:

75 – taken alive, 76 – in a fix, 77 – going to heaven.

This is to describe the following squawks and their uses.

  • 7500 – Unlawful Interference – Hijacking normally.
  • 7600 – Communication Failure – Radio Inoperative.
  • 7700 – Other Emergency – Normally a May Day, where an aircraft or person aboard is in grave or imminent danger.

Emergency Squawks

The main thing they do is alert any radar operator to your peril – and they generally do this by highlighting the aircraft in a very prominent colour on the display of the radar operator.  The operator can then use this information to assist the flight much better, and if you have a Mode S transponder they will also have other information about the flight as well.

Of course we all hope we never have to use any of the emergency squawks, but we all use routine codes every day and will often have to change between them in flight, as we are assigned new codes by new ATC units.

Be Careful!

A post in this months GASIL reminds us that as pilots we have to be careful how we set these squawks… particularly near or around 7500.  Older transponders (in much of the GA fleet) are set by rotating a series of dials, whereas newer transponders are set with buttons and the code typed in.

Old Transponder
Old Transponder
New Transponder
New Transponder

The danger is that when changing squawk on an old style transponder you may scroll the dials through one of the emergency combinations.  7600 and 7700 can be resolved quite quickly by confirming with Air Traffic Control that no emergency exists…  however they are unlikely to believe that having squawked 7500 (even fleetingly) no hijack situation exists, no matter how much you plead.

Fighter Jet Anyone?

The point made in this months GASIL, which I am emphasising is that you must select standby when changing transponder codes on older style units.

Change the unit to standby, change the code, then put turn transponder back to On (Or Alt if available).

If you do not then in the current climate, and especially in 2012 with the Olympics in town, you can fully expect to be intercepted by an RAF Typhoon from the Quick Reaction Force.  This may take some explaining away…

… but if you do get it wrong you can find the Interception Procedures here!

2012 Olympics… the end of Aviation?

The proposed airspace restrictions which will come into force for the 2012 Olympic games in London have been announced…  but I am not quite sure who dreamt them up!

When London won the 2012 Olympic games it was widely celebrated as being good for business and the economy as a result of all the extra people and spending it would bring it.  It seems that if you are in the business of aviation and you’re in the South East of England, it won’t be good for your business!

Restricted or Prohibited.

Olympic Airspace Restrictions
Olympic Airspace Restrictions

As you can see from the graphic the plan is to establish two temporary control zones.  The central one will be prohibited for all flight apart from IFR traffic for London Heathrow and London City (and RAF Northolt & Biggin Hill).  This include the heli-lanes across London, and London Battersea heliport.

There will then be a much larger Restricted zone which more or less covers all of south eastern England.  Flight by powered aircraft will be permitted in the restricted zone, so long as:

  • A flight plan is filed using AFPEx between 2 and 24 hours prior to flight.
  • An acceptance / approval number is granted in receipt of the above.
  • 2 way RT is established with controlling authority and acceptance number is quoted.
  • Aircraft is squawking the unique assigned transponder code.
  • RT with ATC at all times.

These restrictions will be in full force for 2 months (13 July to 12 Sept 2012).

Why?

Clearly the authorities (in this case The CAA, NATS, MoD, and HM Governments security services) have an obligation to deliver a safe games; and these restrictions are obviously designed to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks using aviation.  But I just don’t see how they can work….

Inside the Restricted zone are a number of general aviation airports, from where a light aircraft can take off and be over the Olympic games sites in under 10 minutes.  All of the measures above will only assist in identifying that an unauthorised flight is taking place.  But can the military really get a fighter jet “on task” that quickly, and if they can – what are they going to do about a light aircraft only a few hundred feet above a packed venue?   Whatever they do there is certain to be a lot of “collateral” damage.

Destructive Effect.

It’s probably fair to assume though that the security services have some form of plan for this eventuality and clearly they aren’t going to share that with the masses.  However, it’s the destructive effect of such a massive restriction zone which concerns me.

Obviously all current commercial traffic into and out of London Battersea will be done for; and there are a further 14 airfields within the zones who have to date not been consulted at all.  There is a suggestion that exemptions may be granted on a case by case basis, but unless these exemptions are pretty generous then general aviation is pretty much ruled out during the Olympics.

So, if you’re a helicopter charter operator who though the Olympics would bring plenty of work in…. you might want to think again.  Or at the very least email Olympics.Airspace@dft.gsi.gov.uk with your concerns!

Slowest Race Ever? – Gordon Bennett Cup

Thanks to a couple of people I follow on Twitter (mainly @apgphoto) I have become  aware of the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett – which is currently taking place.  It is the oldest Air Race, having started in 1905 in which Hot Air Ballons “race” to see who can travel the furthest… making it perhaps the slowest race ever too!

When I started looking into this competition, it truly amazed me!  As I write the lead ballon is Swiss 2, currently at 9,800′ just to the west of Rome travelling at 46 knots.  They left Bristol, UK on Saturday evening.  The pilots travel in a wicker basket.  Yep, a wicker basket at nearly 10,000′ and 40kts!

The human element of taking part in this race is amazing, but the shear planning and strategy which goes into must be phenomenal.  Currently the bulk of those ballons still flying are having to make strategy decisions about whether to continue, or slow down… if they don’t clear Italian airspace by nightfall then they will have to land because VFR flight is prohibited in Italy at night.  The leaders should clear it in time, but the rest of the pack will need to avoid it.

Of course all of this forecasting, and organisation is taking place back at a base in the UK with a team of people dealing with ATC clearances and the like.  A colleague joked “what will they do, shoot them down?”   It turns out that is exactly what the Belarussians did in 1995 resulting in the death of 2 American competitors.  Hardly a proportionate response.  I doubt Italy would do that, but I can’t see them being happy either!

I’ve tried to find out some more about what equipment the ballons carry in terms of radio’s, transponders and other flight equipment; it must be interesting to be an Air Traffic Controller and try and accommodate these guys!

Either way, I am now hooked… this is a proper “spirit of adventure” type race, a real imagination catcher.  You can track the live progress of the ballons online, and there is a video of the launch / prep:

Good News For Pilots?

But not in Europe!

For several years now there has been a massive slow down in pilot recruitment, I am talking mainly fixed wing because they make up the most of the market.  This has been brought about by the aftermath of 9/11, and then the global economic downturn.

Getting a job as an airline pilot is a very hard game for what is known as an ‘ab-initio’ pilot (someone with no experience) at the moment, because there is a glut of pilots with experience who are out of work.

The normal “route” to a commercial flying job in the UK / EU (and this holds true for rotary too generally) is to get your private licence, hour build, do your exams for commercial, get your commercial licence, hour build, get your instructors rating, hour build, get a job with airline!

This costs an awful lot of money, and some airlines (generally the Low Cost operators) have been making it harder with some questionable employment practices involving agency employment and loans etc; and by making new pilots pay for their own type rating onto large jets (Boeing 737 / Airbus A320) – and they have been able to get away with this because there are more potential pilots than jobs.

Times, they be a changing.

Pilot Training
Get One While You Can!

Last week Boeing released some research, which is covered by the BBC, suggesting that over the next 20 years the airline industry would need to recruit 500,000 new pilots (and another 450,000 engineers too) to support the developing demand for pilots from Asia, especially China.

The even better news (for pilots and wannabe pilots) from Europe & USA is that Boeing thinks its unlikely that Asia will have the infrastructure in place to train these pilots themselves and so will have to recruit from abroad.

Recruiting pilots from “western” countries has been a hallmark of growing aviation markets; they like to bring in the experience and then use that to develop their own people.  I have flown with airlines like Emirates, for example, who often have an ex-pat Captain and a local First Officer as crew.  This works out well, because knowledge is passed on and over time I am sure the local pilots will rise to be Captains.

So… it could be a good time to get into flying?

30 Seconds to Impact

A book review & warning to chat room commentators.

30 seconds To Impact
Click to Buy @ Amazon

While I was stuck at Oslo (Rygge) airport earlier this week (another story to come in another post!), I managed to use the 7 hour delay productively by finally getting around to reading 30 Seconds To Impact, by Peter Burkill.    For those who don’t know, Peter Burkill was the Captain of the ill-fated British Airways Flight 038 from Beijing to London Heathrow in Jan 2008 which crash landed short of the runway following a double engine failure at 500′; with no loss of life and only 1 serious injury.

The book doesn’t really go in to any great detail about the cause of the crash, or the actions of the pilots (it was actually the Senior First Officer who was Pilot Flying at the time of the crash), but it doesn’t need to – the Air Accidents Investigation Branch does a good job of that, showing that it was a build up of ice in the fuel system that caused the crash.  Instead it concentrates on the human aspects of the crash, its aftermath, and the way it was dealt with by British Airways and the British media.

Maria too.

The book is written as a recollection of events after the crash by both Capt. Burkill and his wife, Maria.  They often alternate passages in the book, and in doing so they provide a brilliant insight into both sides of the story.  It is an absolutely enthralling tale, and I’ll try not to retell the book here – buy a copy, and support The Burkills.

BA038 G-YMMM at LHR
BA038 after crash landing.

I think its probably fair to say that the Burkill’s felt let down by British Airways because of the way they handled the media circus which ensued after the accident; Peter was banned from speaking to the media, and no-one from within BA or his union were about to publicly support him.  In the absence of proper solid information the media (especially the tabloid press) reverted to type and went dredging!

Couple this with gossip and tittle tattle, and you have a proud man almost broken; and because of being off work, almost broke too.  I won’t say more; but it really captures you.  I read nearly the whole book in one sitting!

Aviators.

I think the reason the book was literally “un-put-down-able” was that it detailed the side of an accident that I, and other pilots, never think about – the people.  When an accident occurs we’re all keen to find the root cause as quickly, but as accurately, as possible so that if possible a re-occurrence can be prevented.  To that end the various investigative & safety agencies (AAIB, NTSB, CAA, EASA, etc) do an excellent job of producing technical reports… but none of them ever say what happened afterwards!   Normally, they don’t even mention the pilot’s name – in this case Capt. Burkill is just described as Male, aged 43, 12,700hrs experience.

Peter Burkill
Peter Burkill

This book tells that tale – the personal details.  The thing which has struck me most was that Captain Burkill cited a couple of times that he didn’t get support from his colleagues, and that comments in some forums really really affected him.  This disappoints me because as pilots we should look out for each other – especially in moments of need.  But the message I have taken away is this if you are an aviator and want to comment on an accident, please don’t do so in a public forum without facts. It has untold effects you won’t realise!

Any landing you can walk away from, is a successful landing.

HI Air

Don’t Airlines Normally Have Aircraft?

The BBC recently ran a story entitled “The Worlds Youngest Airline Boss at 17” – and it obviously caught my eye.  It’s a short video about a young man called Joseph Hayat who has set up Hayat International Airways.  While I don’t want to berate what this young man has achieved, but it is clear to me he is considerably better at courting the media than he is at running an “airline.”

The BBC really let themselves get had in here.  Hayat International Airways is not an airline.  It owns no aircraft, leases no aircraft, employs no pilots, has no Air Operators Certificate – oh and also has had no passengers. Or Customers.  By their own admission.

What it is, is a charter broker.  A middleman between an aircraft operator (with an AOC, an airline) and someone wanting to charter an aircraft.    Surely it is obvious it’s not an airline, and certainly does not operate “International Airways.”  What Mr. Hayat has done is set up a website with some pictures of planes & get some media interest; and very well done he has too – it’s certainly raised his profile.  I hope it doesn’t pan out as another Varsity Express – the over ambitious talk of a young man!

I would love to write more about this, but I am off to become the worlds youngest boss of a bank (admittedly I don’t yet have a banking licence, any money or any customers – perhaps the BBC can help me?).

Bad Tweeting, Bad Manners or Bad Magazine?

Rotor & Wing Logoor all of the above? Until yesterday I followed @rotorandwing on Twitter, this being the account which represents one of the rotary aviation industries oldest magazines – Rotor & Wing.

The reason I unfollowed them was because they kept flooding my twitter timeline.  By that I mean that they would post lots of tweets all close together – yesterday it was 19 tweets in minutes.  Obviously all contain links to their articles (which is what I want), but to post 19 tweets consecutively is, to my mind, just bad form.  They will now go quiet for a long time – the previous “batch” of tweets was 4 days ago.   Why not spread them out over a few days?

So, to my mind that is the Bad Tweeting covered.

I tweeted them a couple of times and pointed out how annoying it was, and that consequently I doubted that many people would read all the tweets and/or any of the related articles.  Totally ignored, not even acknowledged.  R&W use TwitterFeed to post their articles onto the twitter account, and I suspect this is probably linked to the content management system they use for their website… maybe the flooding just needs a setting tweaking, they could’ve explained.  Not interested – it’s a 1 way Twitter account, the worst kind.

Twitter is social network, it’s for being social on – you know, actually interacting with people.  In this case those people are your readers, subscribers and members of the (surprisingly small) industry you’re representing.  R&W could actually use it as a source of information, instead of ignoring people.  Still, ignorance is bliss.

Thats the Bad Manners covered.

And seeing as I am rounding on Rotor & Wing today I’d also say that I personally find their design a little “80’s”, and although the standard of the journalism is high, and the information accurate it’s almost painful to read.  The website design is just as bad, and is full of adverts.  Beauty of design is in the eye of the beholder though, so you may like it; this is my subjective opinion.

Worse though is that the tweets and news aren’t even timely.  This tweet from yesterday links to a story dated 1st September about the retirement of Robinson Helicopter founder Frank Robinson.  This is old news – Vertical Magazine had the same news 17 days ago , and the actual press release was 19 days ago.

So that covers the bad magazine bit too.

I thought that it was just me, I get niggled easily by little things; I like attention to detail and timely information.  Turns out I am not the only one who has stopped following them – several people have agreed with me since.   Please Rotor & Wing, bring yourselves into the modern era and play nicely? Else I can’t see you surviving!