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.

Drones a a Service, (DaaS)

The drone industry contrary to what is reported in the media is still very much in its infancy. Initially the market was filled by operators from the hobby sector, seeing an opportunity to make a fast buck. These entrepreneurs were typically a one-man band who offered vanilla drone aerial imaging and video. The more successful operators had some grounding and knowledge in video or photography. Over the last two years although the market has consolidated,it had not done so at the same rate as some had expected. In the UK at the time of writing there are some 4500+ registered organisations with permissions from the UK CAA for commercial operations, with an estimated 9000+ individual pilots.

The rate of new operators entering the market as standalone business as slowed dramatically. In the last 18 months there has been a trend towards enterprises bringing drone operations in house with mixed results. One of the reasons for these mixed results is that end users are more concerned with big data than hardware. Owning, maintaining, and operating drones, with the overhead of compliance, training and CPD, can be too much of an overhead to some businesses. As a result, drones as a service has seeing a huge growth. Governments and businesses of all sizes are likely adopters of DaaS. The global revenue market for drones is expected to reach £9 billion by 2020, according to Gartner.

The opportunities that can be realised when deploying drones as a service are extensive. This model offers an attractive alternative to buying and managing drone operations in house. It also eliminates the upfront capital cost associated with buying a drone, and the ongoing costs and risk. It also provides a reliable revenue stream for service suppliers. Drones as a service can follow the examples we have seen in the computer and software services industry.

Drones or as they are known, Unmanned Aerial Systems, (UAS), can expand new avenues for businesses to collect extensive amounts of data, which in turn can improve their operations, increasing revenue or reducing cost. For instance, they can be useful for precision agriculture, security, wildlife monitoring, environmental survey, and many more.

Increasing levels of autonomy are enabling drones to fly with minimal pilot input and send the most relevant data automatically to the client or management centre. The growing popularity of drones as a service models is paving the way to the “Internet of Drones” becoming reality. In the future fleets of drones could be automatically tasked with capturing data, or a passenger drone could be tasked with capturing imaging after delivering its occupants to their place of work, or whilst on route. A single drone can accomplish a lot;now imagine an entire network of drones, all sharing information, reporting back to mission control, and providing critical information to those on the ground.

Drones as a service grow in the public sector

Although in decline, consumers will continue to purchase drones for personal uses such as aerial photography, but the potentially huge growth of drones as a service means more businesses will have access to big data and insights from a variety of mobile sensors like never.

Over the next two years, the fastest growth opportunity for drones will come from business and public sector. This projected growth could help catapult the drone service market forward, allowing for consolidation of existing services providers, and from new market entrants looking for investment returns.

Drones are able to reach areas and collect more data at a faster pace than a human, which is what helps make drones as a service so valuable.They can monitor an environment in real time and be configured to share only the most important information as it is received.

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