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Coming of Age

Coming of Age

Drones have come a long way in their evolution from top-secret military tools to the cornerstone of entrepreneurial undertakings.

With approximately 600 commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operators registered with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to date, the commercial use of drones has become the fastest growing industry within the field of civil aviation. A recent relaxation in drone rules may also prompt more Australian businesses to take to the skies in the near future.

But first things first. With numerous abbreviations for unmanned aircraft in use, jargon can become confusing. There are four mainstream terms within the industry to refer to an aircraft that is flown from a remote location without a pilot located within the aircraft itself. UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, describes the original term adopted by CASA in July 2002 and is still widely in use including much of CASA certification, licensing and guidance material. UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) is the more up-to-date internationally accepted term in use, now recognised as the overarching ‘class’ terminology by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as well as by CASA. RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) is defined by ICAO as a form of UAS which is non-autonomous in its capacities, the aircraft being subject to direct pilot control at all stages of flight despite operating ‘remotely’ from that pilot. CASA has recently shifted to use of the term RPAS as its primary day to day terminology.

The final term, drone, has been adopted by popular culture as a generic descriptor for all classes of unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft, but particularly in relation to military systems with weapons carriage capabilities. However, the remote pilots of the Predators and Global Hawks that have been used by the US, would likely take a dim view of the term, as it fails to recognise the high level of skill involved in the real-world flight operations performed remotely via a first-person view (FPV) system, a front facing video camera mounted on the aircraft to transmit a real-time video. The operator looks at the image on a computer screen, sees the view as if they were sitting in the cockpit, and flies the plane accordingly.

The main types of UAVs are multirotor, fixed-wing, helicopter and lighter than air (balloons) and they are classified by their individual size. Currently, size classifications for UAVs are micro (under 100 gm), small (101 gm to 150 kg) and large (over 150 kg). However, new amendments due at the end of September this year re-distribute this classification to micro/very small (101 gm to 2kg), small (2 kg to 25kg), medium (25 kg to 150 kg) and large (150 kg and over).

The mainstream use of the UAV is a relatively new phenomenon. Until recently, the logistics of getting a basic aircraft to stabilise in flight was considered a challenging prospect. The convergences of smart mobile technology production, the internet, open source initiatives and crowdfunding have enabled like-minded people across the world to collaborate to build, test and refine UAV technology that was considered top-secret and military-grade just a few years ago. Improvements to cheap, small and efficient processors, sensors and power sources developed by crowd funded projects such as Ardupilot and PX4, have opened the market up to other entrepreneurs, with the community quickly developing follow-up components such as telemetry systems, ground control stations and communication protocols, to form a complete platform for building useful and efficient UAVs.

Airframe components manufacturers, electronics and software/platform developers and system service providers have all expanded and profited from the drone industry. This ecosystem is self-expanding, enabling more researchers and businesses to jump-start their own innovations, a well-publicised example being Amazon’s recently announced plans to use drones for aerial deliveries. And with such high profile names opening up interest and capacity in the UAV market, companies such as Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, formerly restricted to military-use only designs, are now well and truly on the bandwagon to produce more commercially viable designs.

So what are the regulations regarding commercial UAVs’ use in Australia? Irrespective of size or use, the current standard operating conditions for all drones is during the day in visual meteorological conditions only, within visual line of sight of the pilot at all times and no higher than 400 ft above ground level. Flying a UAV in controlled airspace, within 3 nm of an airport, aerodrome or helicopter landing area is prohibited. So too is flying over a populous area or within 30 m of the general public, vehicles, buildings or people not associated with the flight operation. Areas where a fire, police or other public safety or emergency operation is being conducted is also off limits without the approval of a person in charge of the operation.

Failure to abide by CASA regulations is an offence under the CASA Act. In 2014 a man from Altona, Victoria, was fined $850 after his drone hit powerlines and crashed, nearly hitting a police officer at the scene of a siege. It was believed the man was trying to shoot overhead footage of the siege to sell to TV stations. As one Queensland drone operator found out, CASA has also been scouring YouTube for Australian drone pilots breaking who break the rules in aerial videos – he was also fined $850.

Tony Morley, General Manager of Australian company Rise Above, which was founded in 2012 says, “while serious incidents have happened in recent years, the majority of incidents and or risk of incident constitute a low, mitigatable and tolerable risk to the general public at large. Ultimately we believe the benefits of drone systems greatly outweigh the possible drawbacks and associated risks involved…The media additional is quick to castigate those pilots in error and slow to extol the great and overarching benefits of drones.”

Recently, CASA has amended legislation governing the use of drones to allow UAVs that weigh under 2 kg to be flown commercially without having to fork out for a $2,000 licence and a six month waiting period for drone users looking to remotely pilot a UAV for business purposes.

Taking effect on September 29 this year, the new regulations still require that sub-2kg commercial drone operators notify CASA before flying as the authority intends to maintain a database of who has flown their drones and where. CASA has also opened up the regulations to allow landowners to carry out commercial operations with UAVs weighing up to 25 kg without an operator’s licence, as long as no one involved is being paid to do so.

Fully autonomous UAV flights, which operate without any input from a pilot, remain prohibited under the CASA rules without special approval for the time being. However, according to the CASA website, there is scope for “autonomous flight to be approved by CASA on a case-by-case basis” until it is able to draft new amendments to regulate these operations. Approval is still required for first person view outdoor flying operations.

However, the potential conflict between manned and unmanned aircraft continues to be a pressing concern. Brad Mason, secretary of Australian Certified UAV Operators Inc. (ACUO) is concerned by the new regulations warning that, “drones do pose a very real and very serious threat to manned aviation if not operated in accordance with the regulations. Australia (like the rest of the world) has a high non-compliance rate and the regulator needs to do much more to curb the increasing number of ‘drone-incidents reported.”

ACUO has been calling on CASA to develop a public awareness campaign designed to “inform the public to the dangers they pose to aviation and public safety [when] not complying with the aviation regulations.” Arguing that, “it is imperative that all commercial drone operators be trained and qualified. Where regulatory compliance is not being adhered to, an effective enforcement regime is required to curb any remaining unsafe behaviors.”

In light of these new regulations, operators already licensed by CASA are expected to face increased competition from the new sub-2kg UAV operators. Similarly, there will likely be an increase in the number of end-users choosing to own and operate their own internal UAVs rather than contracting existing UAV service providers. Some examples of this scenario include the use of UAVs by tactical police units to assist them in hostage situations or undertaking building site inspection where human proximity is considered dangerous. However, more advanced (and expensive) UAVs will still be needed to carry bulky and more expensive equipment such as laser scanners, and cinema-quality cameras. These UAVs will still need to be operated by licensed operators.

To operate a UAV that weighs over 2 kg for commercial purposes two certificates are required. Brad Mason, talked me through the process: “The first is the personal certificate/license, currently called a UAV Controller Certificate (UCC) and soon to change to a Remote Pilot License (RePL). For this you need to sit a course of training on the type of drone you propose to fly commercially. The list of CASA approved training organizations can be found online. This is the core training for all commercial operators. You can do a course in around five days and CASA will take about four weeks after that to issue your license. Once you have this you are eligible to operate for someone who already holds a business certificate (UOC), or you can nominate yourself as the Chief Controller for the second certificate/license.”

The second certificate is the business certificate, a UAV Operator Certificate or UOC, for which there is no formal training as the completion of the Basic RPAS training ensures the applicant has the required knowledge to complete a UOC application.

“The time and cost to undertake the UOC application has been significantly reduced in recent times” says Mason “What used to take up to $8,000 and 6-10 months to process has now been reduced to just $1,440 and around 30 days. In the future this will likely be streamlined further.” Having obtained the two certificates, a UAV pilot is legally allowed to operate commercially, and can apply to CASA for approval to operate in other areas, and outside the standard operating conditions.

Uses for UAVs in place of a conventional fixed or rotary aircraft is becoming increasingly common as Tony Morley explains: “The near future will not hold drones that transport a crew of twelve and equipment onto a pad in the middle of a bush fire. With that being said, however, light weight drones are quickly replacing conventional aircraft in situations where risk or cost are notably prohibitive. It is significantly more cost effective to launch a drone for most aerial imaging applications, over calling in a Eurocopter AS350 or Cessna for the same project. Likewise, many situations require close industrial inspection and imaging within intolerable proximity to high risk environments; and this is another area in which Rise Above employs drones to continue to remove pilots and passengers from exposure to risk.”

Small, lightweight drones may look like simple model airplanes, but they can survey landscapes with thousands of digital images that can be stitched together to create detailed 3-D maps. Military and other government satellites produce similar maps, but emerging UAV technology can put that capability in the hands of small companies and individuals, to be customised and used for a seemingly endless variety of applications. Such technology has already been widely applied with both human guided and autonomous UAVs for relief efforts, mining companies monitoring changes to open pit mines, and by festivals to maintain the security of the venue and monitor crowd control. During the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s largest drone analyzed the emergency from high altitude, while a backpack-size drone inspected the crippled reactors at close quarters.

Closer to home, Australian company Ninox Robotics hopes to provide high-tech surveillance by utilising UAVs outfitted with advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests – such as wild dogs, pigs or rabbits – across harsh in inaccessible terrain. The widespread availability of economical UAV technology is also revolutionizing the agricultural industry, allowing farmers to gather crop health information without waiting for satellite passes or paying the high costs of manned-aircraft flights. Extremely high resolution images captured regularly enables growers and scientists to collate data on crops over time, identifying and resolving issues that might otherwise threaten yield.

Companies that require the regular inspection of power lines, oil and gas pipelines, transmission towers, buildings and bridges, wind turbines and rotor blades can use UAV’s to enable the inspector or team to access the information from a safe position. The ability to for on-board technology to sense in three dimensions, take thermal readings, and to detect metal strain will greatly improve the infrastructure inspection process.

The use of UAVs within Australian search and rescue operations has increased exponentially over the past few years. At Westpac Lifesaver Helicopter base in La Perouse this January, Premier Mike Baird declared the $250,000 UAV dubbed ‘Little Ripper” to be the “future of rescue” in NSW and predicted that eventually every surf club in the state could have access to the technology to save lives. The Little Ripper, a military-grade Vapor 55 UAV was made in the United states in conjunction with Newcastle company Skyline and is designed to carry a tailor-made pod for rescue in marine, snow and land environments which can be dropped to the person or people in distress. The marine pod carries equipment including an inflatable three-person life raft and an EPIRB locator beacon. The drone is capable of up to one hour of flight time per charge and is equipped with a high-tech camera which it is hoped can be used for shark spotting using a software algorithm that is under development.

As well as helping humans with tasks, UAV’s have also changed the way we perceive the environment around us. Recently NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Northrop Grumman undertook a three year, $30 million project to use long-range UAVs to spy on storms as they evolve, a very risky prospect for manned aircraft. UAVs were used in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi for filming skiing and snowboarding events and have since gained popularity within the field of televised sports. Journalists are also starting to use UAVs to collect footage and information that would otherwise be inaccessible due to conflict or disaster.

As with any new innovation or invention, there is still an element of fear and ‘delving into the unknown’ when thinking about the future implications of this technology once it is widely adopted. However, there appears to be a groundswell of support for drone use within particular commercial applications such as for the emergency services and infrastructure management which is reassuring. These industries are benefitting greatly from the increased flexibility and safety that drones can add to their services.

The future of the industry is looking bright, with the manned and unmanned aviation sectors to inevitably cross over down the line. Mr. Mason says “Once the regulator and industry start to operate drones Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), we will start to see drones replacing general aviation aircraft where it is not essential to have a pilot on-board. Drone deliveries and remote and regional freight operations are likely to be the starting point.”

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