The accidental death of a civilian in the Democratic Republic of Congo after a UAV crash landing is likely to strengthen international efforts to establish common design and certification standards according to Dewar Donnithorne-Tait, dean of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems Institute.

The accident, which occurred in the DRC capital city of Kinshasa 3 October, represents a tragedy Donnithorne-Tait says, but points to the need for the UAV sector as a whole to adopt a rigorous airworthiness framework if the objective of flying in civil airspace is to be achieved.

He explains: “The majority of all UAVs flying at present come from a military heritage. In that environment the design considerations are focused on combat needs, not operation in civil airspace environments. They are designed for flying in conflict situations using segregated airspace and while great attention is paid to safety, the standards may not be the same as for commercial aviation”.

Existing civil agency policies for the safe operation of UAVs already tend to emphasise the need for UAVs and model airplanes to be operated away from populated areas Donnithorne-Tait says.

“That is appropriate for the present but it is an issue as the civil market evolves. UAVs are currently confined to segregated airspace and military UAV development has not generally dealt with ground kinetic energy impact issues as a design parameter other than in terms of safe air vehicle recovery. “

The crash and its circumstances are likely to be explored in depth by multiple international working groups now developing draft specifications and standards for safe UAV operation he says.

However there is a growing need for the sector to begin examining how it handles public perceptions of the safety of unmanned systems.

“Both manned and unmanned systems can fail” Donnithorne-Tait says. While the DRC accident appears “to be a first” in that it resulted in a civilian death, “the goal is to achieve safe operations in civil airspace and that is an issue the sector will have to deal with”.