To say that the response to what seems to be a daily expansion of the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) for commercial applications is mixed would be an understatement, with advocates and adversaries alike being vocal about the introduction of such a disruptive technology.
On one side, pilots, privacy pioneers and security promotors have raised concerns over issues relating to the use of such systems, touting safety and data protection as just some of the reasons why the industry must be controlled. On the other side of the spectrum, industry and operators are often frustrated by what they deem to be a lack of progress, and are calling for more rapid allowances to be granted.
In the middle are the regulators, struggling to protect public safety without needlessly holding back an industry whose early development shows a potential that bears some similarity to that of the manned commercial industry. In Europe, EASA is in the process of introducing new proportionate regulations for the operation of UAVs. These rules are expected to be introduced around 2019.
Meanwhile, US regulations have been highly restrictive, but the Federal Aviation Administration now allows commercial UAV operations to be carried out under its so-called Part 107 exemption; that mechanism has been officially enforced since August 2016 and replaced the so-called 333 waiver system that had previously governed commercial operations.
While Part 107 marks progress in that it filled a gap in regulations that had previously hindered commercial use of unmanned systems in the USA, critics say there is still a long way to go to balance reasonable access with safety in US airspace. According to Paul Rigby, chief executive of UAV training and consultancy company Consortiq: "The USA was crying out, waiting for some sort of regulatory framework to help them get going to get above the 333 exemptions, and Part 107 went some way towards that.
"But there are still quite a lot of restrictions in terms of what airspace you can operate in, such as how far away from an airport you can operate. We don't think we have such problems here in the UK."
Rigby adds that there is a fair amount of commercial activity under way in the UK, and various organisations now have safe technology and inspection techniques – creating a far more flexible environment than in the USA: "If you are trying to do the same in the USA, there are still quite a lot of restrictions, and to get an exemption or waiver or permission to operate in certain areas, is sometimes going beyond 90 days. This really needs to be accelerated, because nobody can run a commercial organisation with that level of uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to take a job."
In Rigby's view the UK system has been particularly progressive in allowing systems weighing less than 7kg (15.4lb) to operate in Class A airspace without letting air traffic control know. The result is that, generally, there are not airspace issues for commercial operators. "All the problems that make the press are from recreational flyers, which are more than likely consumers, and are not particularly hobby flyers that are part of a club, but they are rogue, lone-wolf types that have bought a drone off the internet and have gone and flown it," he said.
Where the real test for these regulations will come will be in key areas such as beyond-line-of-sight and higher-altitude operations, and with the use of heavier systems, says Rigby: "I think where there is still a lot of work to be done, in that entry-level permissions have got going in both the UK and USA, but what needs a lot more work now is how to start opening up to beyond visual line of sight, higher altitudes, heavier weights and so on, as a precursor to what we all know is coming, which is the heavier flying taxis that will operate at low levels.
"There might be some sort of transition altitude where there is a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, and at high altitudes there will be unmanned aircraft operating just as you'd expect any other aircraft to operate."
In the USA, Part 107 permissions can be expanded if an operator has a strong safety and business case. One way to prove to the FAA that further authorisations should be granted is through advanced training, Rigby argues.
The number of National Qualified Entity (NQE) training companies that are certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration in the UK is on the rise, in large part based on the market potential from commercial users that are using training to both ensure they are safe, and to bolster the performance of their unmanned operations. "Outside aviation, it might not be so obvious as to why training is so key for preparing yourself for operating in the aviation environment," Rigby notes.
"I think as the entry-level training got going, it was a case of what was the minimum viable training that had to be done to be competent, and that is what the UK CAA was dictating, but now as companies like ourselves are innovating with new products and the benefits are clear, they can send somebody on a course and after five days they’ve turned their cameraman into an aerial cameraman that can be very proficient at that job."
He claims that various industries are starting to wake up to the benefits now, with the oil and gas sector being one that is gaining momentum. The media industry was the early adopter of UAVs to support operations – using them for newsgathering and getting aerial shots that would otherwise be difficult to obtain – and the emergency medical services (EMS) are now a significant user of UAVs as well.
"The likes of the emergency services have had their budgets cut in recent times, and are subject to pay freezes, so they're seeing UAVs as a way of saving money or making the most of what they've got," Rigby notes. "Police helicopters are not as freely available anymore, so if you can't get one over to support going into a building, or maybe you're looking for some aerial intelligence, there are certain divisions like Devon and Cornwall Police that are using drones now to get that extra information."
The CAA recently lifted restrictions on EMS UAV use, allowing for them to fly over public spaces that other users cannot, in order to benefit emergency operations.
"Because they are typically tackling situations where there is security or the public at risk, they are given a little bit more dispensation in the air navigation order by the CAA, and they can be doing things that probably aren't available to the rest of the commercial industry at the moment without significant investment," he adds.
The dispensation granted by the CAA does come with an extra requirement for responsibility, he adds: "If you are going to exercise the privilege of that information notice then you still need to understand what you are actually saying, and what you’re giving an authority to."
To this end, training is key, and Consortiq is in the process of rolling out a new training course to police forces in Northern Ireland that are keen to exercise this dispensation.
"So at least when they are in a live situation, they will know what authority they are exercising," Rigby adds, noting that the new notice allows for a certain amount of beyond-line-of-sight operations.
"Beyond visual line of sight can be as simple as going behind a building and not being able to see it anymore, and you are not going to get into a conflict with any other air users," he adds. "If you go beyond-line-of-sight in the broader sense, you can be operating up to 3km [2 miles] away.
"Suppose you go beyond-visual-line-of-sight, there are a few complications you open yourself up to. So, they’ve got to be sure that they are weighing that risk up against what the problem is that they are actually trying to solve."
Consortiq is seeing more demand for training that goes beyond the three-day entry-level course that teaches clients how to operate a UAV, therefore, and customers are looking to take their training that bit further.
"The three days gets you to be safe, but the days after get you to be competent and proficient at your job, be that getting smooth aerial shots for media, or for using drones in hazardous situations by the fire service," he adds.
"We’re finding now that they are starting to extend those training courses, so we get requests for five- and six-day training courses now."
Another NQE, Resource Group, has rolled out an online training element that replaces a ground school, which users can carry out in their own time, and Mark Jones, head of unmanned aviation services at the company, claims this appeals to an increasing number of operators.
"We’ve rolled out online training, so looked at the demographic of the people coming through for training, and according to the feedback we were getting, they are of the 'Playstation generation', that would benefit from an online package, instead of having to turn up at one of our locations and do a face-to-face ground school," Jones tells FlightGlobal.
"Instead, they can do an online package in their own time. When they are good and ready they will book with us to do a flight assessment."
Resource Group is also seeing the EMS market as a significant one for its training courses, although the company has identified that the online training would not necessarily be suited to these users because of the nature of what they do.
"We’re doing a lot more training for the emergency services, mainly the police and fire service, but because of the way they do their daily business, it doesn't really lend itself to doing online training, because it's done in their own time, and if you are a policeman or firearms officer for example, it is homework of sorts," Jones says.
"With the emergency services, the course is much more tailored towards them. The flight assessment is also more scenario-based, to plan for operations that are more likely to rear their head in their industry."
Jones says that while the media industry was also a key client for Resource Group when it began offering UAV training, this has subsided somewhat and is being overtaken by other sectors that are just beginning to adopt this technology into their operations. Resource Group has just completed a training course in Kosovo, for example, where it was offering training for land mine inspection.
"We have just had a team come back from Kosovo, training some operators for humanitarian mine action, which is training for safety and speed to use an unmanned technology for finding and identification of remnants of war and mines where there have been conflicts," Jones says.
"It is very niche, but is one of those industries where drones are carrying out a good role. We were training people that had flown in from Syria, Libya, and those from charitable organisations that can see the benefit of using this technology to keep human beings away from explosives."
Jones adds that the company is regularly receiving enquiries from potential users that are interested in what unmanned technology can do, for example regarding potentially deploying UAVs underground to survey mines, or from roofers that could use them to survey high buildings without having to erect scaffolding.
He adds that clients are becoming more aware of what UAVs can do, and so are wanting more from their operations than just to collect interesting aerial shots. Two years ago, he says, a lot of his discussions with clients were "semi-educational, we were trying to educate on what a drone can do. Now, to a certain degree, it is managing expectations. They are seeing how technology is rushing forward, and they want to get on it."
With the proliferation of such a disruptive technology – that can gain access to areas that people might not be comfortable with them entering – there has unsurprisingly been a focus on development of blocking technologies. Companies are employing radar and electro-optical technology to detect and track potentially malicious UAVs, which then employ countermeasures such as jamming to halt an aircraft’s operations and bring it to the ground.
These systems are often employed near critical infrastructure, as government and private agencies alike look to protect against malicious UAV use.
In September 2017, DroneShield revealed its DroneGun MKII counter-UAV system at DSEI in London, and subsequently announced that the system was due to be evaluated by Spanish military and law enforcement agencies – including the Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional – in October. French and British military and law enforcement agencies are also trialling the rifle-shaped system, the company says, and the company has previously demonstrated the technology to the US government.
The DroneGun provides countermeasures against a wide range of UAV models, the company says, and allows for a controlled management of the payload, that could include explosives, with no damage to the surrounding environment. The system blocks video transmission from the UAV, and the air vehicle remains intact once it has been brought to the ground so that it can be later analysed.
Both the French and British governments have been exploring this kind of technology for some time, with the latter releasing details in September 2017 of a requirement for an air defence system for use against UAVs. The Ministry of Defence released an urgent capability requirement document for a counter-UAV system for the UK armed forces, which can detect, track, identify and tackle UAVs weighing 2-250kg at ranges of less than 500m.
The specific focus, however, is on systems in the 2-22kg category; concern about this small end of the range reflects fears that terrorists may be able to turn small commercial UAVs into weapons. With relatively limited accountability for sales of this type of system, and an increase in development of small payloads that only need to be carried small distances to a target, the use of these systems for illegal activities is proliferating.
C-UAV technology is also being applied against dangerous, though not necessarily malicious, activity – namely, careless operators who do not appreciate the risks of flying near other critical infrastructure and aircraft.
But what is ultimately colouring technology development, application and regulation is the fact that UAVs are increasingly seen as normal; a disruptive technology, perhaps, but not an unusual one. Thus the excitement – and fear – surrounding unmanned systems has somewhat waned, and industry, regulators and other agencies are getting down to business to iron out some of the issues associated with their use.
And critically, UAVs are no longer a niche technology, simply used to collect aerial images that would be impractical or expensive to gather from traditional aircraft. Since UAVs are now mainline tools in many industries, their cost and performance has to match or better that of a manned platform in order for operators to justify running the risk of using them.
Hence the increasing importance of sound regulation – however experimental that regulation may often be, given that unmanned flight is still a very new venture. The alternative is that it will be a very long time before commercial UAV operations are as safe, robust and cost-effective as manned aviation.
NEW SERVICES CONCEPT
While in the military domain UAVs are often contracted out on a services basis, this is not something commonly done in the commercial industry. Leasing or acquiring data collection services from an OEM can help support military customers that are only carrying out a particular operation for a short period of time. Many, therefore, do not need to permanently acquire a fleet of UAVs.
Now, Leonardo has identified that there is a market for contracting in the commercial sector as well, and has introduced a new model to offer UAVs – beginning with its fixed-wing Falco – on a services basis.
Leonardo is close to setting up the new business, Fabrizio Boggiani, senior vice-president of support and service solutions Italy, tells FlightGlobal. And, he notes, specific regulations for this type of UAV use still need to be ironed out, so the company is focusing attention on the rules for manned operations.
"We have mirrored exactly what a manned service operator must do in terms of organisation and internal documents, specifically the safety management system," he says.
"The Italian authorities – due to the fact we have certain organisation and procedures, and sets of documents and internal rules – can give us a permit to fly for activities that are not [necessarily] in segregated areas, and they are in well-defined areas."
Leonardo has teamed up with air service operator Heli Protection Europe to facilitate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) services using UAVs through the new business.
Boggiani says the services model will appeal for applications different to military ones, such as border control, disaster recovery and fire monitoring.
"Of course, this is already happening with very light drones, but there is a trend to also use heavier UAVs for doing missions that will not be so different to the military ones in the sense that they will be surveillance activities for critical areas," Boggiani adds.
"We see at first that it will be orientated to security, protection and activities where manned platforms could be more at risk."
Leonardo is building upon its experience offering ISR services to the UN for its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it is exploring different ways of offering it.
"An experienced operator like we are, that has collected thousands of flying hours, must be open to any possible formula," he says. "We have all of the capabilities from simply training… up to a full service where pilots, payload operators, maintenance crew and so on are provided by us, and so the user is only paying for flying hours and delivery of data."
He notes that while the main priority for Leonardo is its own UAVs, starting with the Falco and possibly also moving to the rotary-wing systems, it is also open to providing third-party aircraft if the company does not have a system that fits the requirements.