Issues for Commercial Drone Pilots since the expansion of drone ‘no-fly’ zones introduced on the 13th of March 2019

New rules for drones around airports were introduced by the CAA in March 2019, this was the second such change to the air navigation order in this respect within 12 months. Unfortunately, the legislation changes have made no distinction between commercial drone operators with permission and insurance, and hobby drone pilots.

Previously commercial drone pilots in possession of a Permission for Aerial Work, (PfCo) from the UK CAA were allowed to fly drones with a mass of under 7kg in and around airports without requesting permission. That said most operators did inform the airport air traffic control, (ATC) as this was deemed to be best practice and contributed to air safety.

Most members of the public are not aware that the majority of commercial and hobby drones have internal GPS database, (Geofence), which restricts the flights of drones in and around airports. Typically these restrictions were centred on the Air Traffic Zone, (ATZ), at airports.

The introduction of these new restrictions have introduced some new terms that are only relevant to drones, such as Flight Restriction Zone, (FRZ). The Flight Restriction Zone consists of the following three elements:

– The Aerodrome Traffic Zone: A 2 or 2.5 nautical mile radius ‘cylinder’ around the aerodrome, extending 2000 ft above ground level, centred on the longest runway.

– Runway Protection Zones: A rectangle extending 5Km from the threshold of the runway away from the aerodrome, along the extended runway centreline, and 500m either side-  also to a height of 2000 ft above ground level.

– Additional Zones: In the case where the 1Km boundary of an aerodrome extends beyond the Aerodrome traffic zone, and so would not be protected by it, the flight restriction zone will include a ‘bump’ (the airfield boundary + 1KM) to protect this part of the aerodrome.

Although most commercial drone operators would inform the local ATC when flying a drone near an airport previously, they did not require their express permission to fly. With the introduction of FRZ’s and the changes to the Air Navigation Order, (ANO), commercial drone operators now require the explicit permission of ATC before a flight can be made. The new FRZ’s extend far beyond the old ATZ’s covering much larger areas, both around the airports but also in-line with the approach and take-off.

An example of the huge areas these FRZ’s cover, can be seen in and around Glasgow as below;

As a result of these changes commercial drone pilots are now experiencing problems gaining the necessary permissions for flights that they previously undertook legally and safely.

The requirements to gain the appropriate permissions varies by airport and operator. Where NAT’s supply the ATC functions they are using the Non Standard Flight, (NSF), permissions process initially, (a processes that can take up to 28 days), then on the day of the flight the permission of ATC is required.

At other airports not managed by NATs, local ATC are either outsourcing this process or giving a blanket NO to drone flight requests, unfortunately an alarming amount are saying NO. Some suggestions have been made that this is down to resources issues, but likely politics are involved as ATC get no additional monies to manage these requests. The changes have allowed ATC to now say NO, even when the flights could be made safely.

There has been much confusion regarding the process that commercial drone pilots must undertake to gain permission at some airports, this coupled with many just responding with a resounding NO, has resulted in concern from many drone pilots about their ability to undertake existing and future business in and around airports.

These new rules were introduced in part as a knee jerk reaction to the incident at Gatwick. The only result so far is that they have restricted the safe and legal operation of commercial drones. Criminals don’t care and won’t take notice of additional drone legislation, those wanting to use drones for nefarious purposes will continue to do so no matter what new laws are introduced.

Previously the UK had been a world leader in developing drone legislation and frameworks for the safe use of drone within its airspace, with the US lagging far behind. In recent months this role has been reversed, we hope the recent introduction of FRZ’s is not a sign of things to come for the fledgling UK drone industry.

Whilst post Gatwick there will be little sympathy for Drone Operators with regard to these issues, many commercial drone pilots are concerned about the backlash from the public as a result. Over the past few months there have been numerous reports of pilots being assaulted both physically and verbally. The industry would like to see the media and regulators differentiate more between legal and safe drone operations and those operating illegally. Drones bring several benefits both from a safety perspective, but also commercially.

 About the author: Craig Jump is leading drone consultant, with over 7 years drone / UAV flying experience. He holds UK CAA permissions for fixed and rotary wing drones and is a UK CAA NQE Instructor and flight assessor. He is Security Cleared, Disclosure Scotland Checked and provides anti drone and drone security consultancy services.

Is 2019 going to be a difficult year for UK Drone Operators ?

2018 has without a doubt been a dark year for the fledgling commercial drone industry in the UK. Numerous reports of drones being used for carrying drugs into prisons, and then finally there was the Gatwick incident in Dec 2018. Many in the drone industry debated about “The Event”, most commercial operators believed “the event” would be when the first person in the UK was killed by a commercial or hobby drone. I don’t think anyone envisaged about an incident, such as the one that took place at Gatwick airport.

The media continues to fuel the publics fear of drones, some reporting specifically designed to make the headlines, which I guess is what sells newspapers and linked advertising. There are few good drone news stories reported, and of which there are many more, but guess they don’t make as good a headline.

Even before Gatwick, most commercial drone operators had already seen a backlash from some members of the public. Pilots were frequently being portrayed as anti-social and at times felt like pariahs. Being a drone operating lately also meant you needed good skills in conflict resolution as a result. The public is now more inclined to report drone flights to the police, even totally legal flights made by hobbyists or commercial operators. Commercial operators are spending more and more time liaising with the Police as a result, wasting considerable time and money on both sides. Drones are very polarising, you either love or hate them, however you cannot argue that they bring numerous commercial and safety advantages over manned aviation, or traditional high-risk high-level access methods etc.

One area that frequently comes up with interaction with the public is privacy, again scaremongering by the press has raised the concern. Let’s be clear, the vast majority of drones cannot look in windows, and if they did you would certainly hear them, yet this is a topic that comes up again and again. The rules with respect to privacy is no different from photography by those using a camera phone, the later of which you are much more likely to be filmed with. You have a reasonable right to privacy in your back garden, but the the law is quite clear, a drone with camera should not be getting within 50m of your back garden, or 150m for those without UK CAA permission. Note: A drone without a camera or other data capture device does not have the same restrictions.

As commercial operators we frequently notify the Police when we are flying in urban or high-risk areas, even though legally we have no obligation to do so. This has resulted in increased scrutiny from the Police, requests for additional information, and sometimes discussions which end in the operations not being undertaken due to their concerns with the threat of prosecution. This happens even though the flights could have been made legally under the Air Navigation Order, (ANO). The frustration for legal commercial operators is they feel that the focus from the Police is all wrong, if an operator is calling them to let them know where they are operating, it is unlikely they would fly illegally. Yet we see day in and day out, recreational drone pilots posting highly illegal flights on YouTube, or those without UK CAA permissions undertaking commercial operations. All of these taking place with very few convictions or actions against those involved. There is a huge frustration amongst the commercial operators at the lack of action from the UK CAA and Police with regard to drone pilots operating commercially, without insurance or UK CAA Permission. No new laws are needed to prosecute these individuals, it is already clear what legislation they are breaching, and the Police have the powers to take action now.

The most recent nail in the coffin for many drone businesses has been the focus on commercial operators who businesses are located near Gatwick by the Police. We understand the need by the Police to investigate every lead possible, but targeting commercial operators seems like a witch hunt to some. After all commercial operators are the only drone operators currently registered with the UK CAA. While most would agree that drone registration planned for all drones over 250g in November 2019 is a great idea, you can’t help being concerned, that had this been available prior to the Gatwick incident then they would have been targeted by the security services. It has been reported on numerous occasions that those wishing to use a drone nefariously wont register their drones in the first place.

So where does this all leave the UK drone industry?  

Most would agree it’s at a precarious state, calls for further knee jerk legislation in the UK could hamper and hinder the fledgling industry before its even got started. Most commercial operators already feel that the current legislation is too restrictive for businesses to take advantage of drone technology, even without any additional legislation. The global revenue market for drones is expected to reach £9 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. If the UK wants a slice of this opportunity, and is not to be left behind in the development and R&D, then it needs to think hard on how is manages these risks going forward, and this all needs done in a supporting way, rather than making commercial drone use more restrictive.

As an industry we need to get to the bottom of what happened at Gatwick quickly. Was there a drone? there is much online speculation that there wasn’t one. There certainly was enough technology deployed that should have identified a drone. Some also find it strange today that few definitive images or video has surfaced of the alleged drones.

  About the author: Craig Jump is leading drone consultant, with over 7 years drone / UAV flying experience. He holds UK CAA permissions for fixed and rotary wing drones and is a UK CAA NQE Instructor and flight assessor. He is Security Cleared, Disclosure Scotland Checked and provides anti drone and drone security consultancy services.

Using drones during Flood events.

Using drones during Flood events.

As drones have become more popular, their benefits during a disaster or other natural event has been recognised by numerous agencies and individuals.

During an event in Scotland in 2016, we were called upon by SEPA at very short notice to try and image some flooding over a large are. Whilst we were able to deploy at short notice it highlighted some safety concerns and also the practicalities of using drones during a large flooding events.

Depending on the agency, the drone imaging requirements can vary:

  • Geospatial and public sector clients tend to require point clouds, photogrammetry and other GIS outputs,
  • Insurance; video and still imaging
  • News and reporting; video and stills. LIDAR can also offer benefits especially in regard to mapping but currently has some limitations on drones.

Drone Platforms for Flood Imaging and Mapping

Whilst this is a general survey of the pros and cons of rotary verses fixed wing, and there are some exceptions, these apply to  majority of drone service providers.

Rotary Wing

  • Pros:
    • Easier & Quicker Deployment
    • Can take off in small areas
    • Video and stills
    • Oblique and Nadir imaging
  • Cons:
    • Limited flight time
    • Total area per flight limited to @75ha
      • (Standard permissions)
    • Typically <20min flight time
  • Fixed Wing
    • Pros:
      • @1 hour flight times
      • Up to 200ha per flight, (EVLOS), 1000ha+ in a day
      • UK CAA more likely to approve extended distances due to reduced risk
    • Cons:
      • Needs large area for take-off and landing
      • Needs Extended Visual Line of sight approvals from CAA for best use and return on investment
      • Nadir images only, no video on most platforms

Operating Drones Safely for Flood Survey

During a large flooding event, where there is large scale risk to life, limb or property, and emergency controlling authority (ECA) will be established. Typically this will the local Police force, but they may differ to the Fire Brigade who will be better equipped to co-ordinate and respond.

It is our experience that there many other “air users” during a flood, Search and Rescue, (SAR), Police, Coast Guard, Armed Forces, News Helicopters as well as hobby drone pilots and other commercial drone pilots. It is therefore important when operating drones in these areas that the flights are coordindated with the Emergency Controlling Authority, (ECA) if one is in control.

Using Video as Survey Data

  • Weather a consideration, most drones don’t like rain and wind needs to >20mph
  • Other airspace users may create additional risks
    • Police, Military, Hobby etc, need to coordinate with other agencies
  • Gaining landowner permissions at short notice difficult *
    • Drone provider could be classed as CAT 2 responder *
  • Large flood areas may be better to use manned aircraft *
  • Varied Datasets required for Environment Agencies, Local Authorities, Insurance Companies etc, sharing of data ?
  • Drone mapping using RGB cameras may be limited to flood extent
  • Video imaging needs tied to platform that can visualise location, direction of view / time & date

 

Turkey Red Media is part of a UK wide contract which mobilises during large flood events, on behalf of a number of agencies, including Public Sector, Insurance and Geospatial