I was pleased to hear this morning that the Government is proposing that those who purchase what in the private and commercial world these days are termed as ‘drones’ (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or Remotely Piloted Air Systems) for pleasure or commercial purposes will soon need to register their purchase and also take a safety test in order to ensure that they have been properly independently assessed and that they understand safety and other important implications associated with drone flying.
Commercial drone users are subject to a different set of rules already including an independent flying assessment requirement but it is particularly pleasing to hear that the Government is now proposing tougher penalties will be imposed for anyone flying a drone within a no-fly zone area and for drone misuse.
There is nothing wrong in flying drones in areas that are specifically allocated for the purpose. Indeed, enthusiasts have been flying model aircraft for decades and in theory, the flying of drones should be little different. The trouble is that ‘drones’ are far more sophisticated and they can go higher and faster than model aircraft do – all of which also means that they can in wrong hands go out of control.
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport at the Ministry for Aviation, Lord Ahmad, is on record as saying that while the vast majority of drone users were law-abiding, “some are not aware of the rules or choose to break them putting public safety, privacy and security at risk”. This is true enough and an increasing number of near misses during which drones have accidently or otherwise ended up being flown too near commercial aircraft are worrying air safety authorities including the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) and NATS (formally National Air Traffic Services).
All this begs the wider question of whether drone flying is a hazard that we should and indeed, will have to learn to put up with or whether it should be considered sufficiently dangerous that a combination of ‘dog licence’ registering and ‘competency test’ for private and commercial users might be insufficient to provide necessary required public confidence that drone flying isn’t an accident waiting to happen?
Commercial airline pilots are getting increasingly worried about drones and rightly so. Various near misses or hits have been reported and they fear that one day a more severe accident is bound to occur. Bad enough that pilots of commercial and private aircraft have to cope with bird strikes, gliders and the like but drones are something else.
Anyone flying a small drone already needs to be aware of a set of well-defined regulations affecting their use. These are contained in the CAA’s Air Navigation Order. Specifically, this order covers matters relating to ‘endangering safety of any person or property, definition of a congested areas being that of a city, town or settlement which is substantially used for residential, industrial commercial and recreational purposes and so on.
Basically and in order to understand what the CAA rules require in regard to flying small drones (those with a mass under 20 kg) for pleasure and also commercial purposes are that: drones must always be kept in sight and they must stay below 400 feet (120 metres) to comply with the ‘dronecode’.
A 150 ft (50 metre) distance must always be kept between people and property and they must be kept at least 500 feet away from crowds and built up areas. Legal responsibility lies with the drone user no matter what and failure to comply with the code and rules could result in criminal action. Importantly, drones must not in any way endanger the safety of an aircraft and it is a requirement subject to being a criminal offence with a five year sentence if drones violate rules by going anywhere near aircraft, airports or airfields.
The code and rules as currently laid down are undoubtedly clear and precise but as we stand there is no legal requirement for any training to fly drones for pleasure purposes (defined as the pilot not be paid by someone). In my view this needs to change and some form of test and licence system needs to be considered.
Large drones (those with a mass of more than 20kg) are subject to a far more restrictive set of regulations which I will not list fully here but that for instance specify that these are not permitted to fly in any non-segregated airspace in the UK without the specific permission of the CAA. If they are above 150 kg in mass they are also subject to additional certification requirements as determined by the European Aviation Safety Agency.
It is all very well for the CAA and NATS to produce guidance saying to drone users that when you fly one you need to be aware that UKs airspace is extremely busy with light aircraft, military jets and helicopters operating at low level but my personal view is that without some form of training so that users can better understand the dangers means words of advice are just not enough.
Not surprisingly there are various companies offering short introductory lessons for new drone users that will help the user to fly drones safely and teach them the basics of properly controlling the drone in order to avoid accidents and ensure public safety. Commercial drone users do need to be approved through undergoing an assessment by an approved CAA organisation.
What the Government is proposing today is a small step forward to ensure better aviation safety and that drone users better understand the dangers of flying drones. That they should be registered and have initial training is re-assuring. Drones in private and commercial operator hands are here to stay but they do need to be properly controlled.
CHW (London 21st December 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785