UAS | REGULATION
UAS Regulation: Business vs
What does it take to make Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), at any distance, safe and integrated with existing air laws? Bridging the gap between business needs and air safety
14.2.2019 // 6 minute read
There will always be a tension between business (the economy) and the regulators in any industry. This is because businesses want the freedom to be able to operate however they like. However, the regulator is there to protect the interests of the people (in the case of the CAA, air safety is a critical part). In the UK, the CAA are working with businesses to bridge the gap between the business needs and air safety - working with the Department for Transport and operators through the Pathfinder programme. The Pathfinder programme does not give operators carte blanche to do as they want, if anything the operators within the programme are under higher regulatory scrutiny than regular operators. What the programme does do is allowing a small group of operators to test the technical limitations of Unmanned Aircraft System (=UAS) use without negatively affecting air safety. And in the long term, it is hoped that it'll make the use of UAS at any distance safe and integrated with existing air laws.
Bridging the gap
What business needs to understand from the regulators’ side is that the use of UAS, particularly at distances further than 1km, can pose risks to life without proper regulation and education. And what the regulators need to understand is that the use of UAS can be done safely by operators that are becoming more and more professional (many turning over millions of dollars each year).
Also, regulation and indeed the technology around the use of UAS within civilian airspace needs to move quicker than the regulators have moved since the 1950s (when commercial air travel boomed).
The solution is not simple; it is more of a socio/political/economic balancing act. On the one side, businesses will continue to push the boundaries with or without the regulator. On the other, it is up to the regulator to design frameworks that are flexible enough to encompass the entire spectrum of the UAS industry, but robust enough to maintain an excellent level of safety. Add in a dash of social disagreement to drones (being filmed, safety, etc) and the political drive to realise the benefits of the industry (calculated at £42bn by PwC) and you see a potent mix of opinions.
Ultimately, the regulators are not there to stifle industry. And businesses are not there to act recklessly or unsafely. And as long as they can find a balance between these, both should benefit!
As with all new industries, it takes a while - over 5 Years - for regulation through technology to become more mainstream. In the case of UAS, it is imperative that they become integrated with the regular operating procedures of other air users. Right now, this is somewhat possible through a multitude of third parties vying to gain a majority stake in the airspace management of UAS - but none are really creating a fully integrated system.
And nor should they be yet. The industry is still in its infancy - it is really only 3 years old, before which it was very unknown. There are not enough learning points or defined procedures to be able to create a fully integrated system that will have longevity. Furthermore, there needs to be a shift in manned aviation towards the use of technology in every aircraft. Right now, the biggest risk to UAS is not commercial or military aircraft, it is small manned aircraft that regularly operate without transponders (making them invisible to everything bar radar). This is because small manned aircraft are most likely to be operating at lower altitudes (500 ft), therefore bringing them into close proximity to UAS. Without a more robust system for tracking all manned aircraft, it is next to useless having a fully integrated system between manned and unmanned units, because it means the UAS operators can only monitor a subsection of the airspace. This should be complemented by the mandatory tracking of UAS (using transponders) - with these both in place, the safe use of UAS at any distance should be possible.
What does BVLOS mean for business and the regulator?
In the UK (and many other countries), UAS operations are split into three categories: VLOS (Visual line of sight), EVLOS (Extended Visual Line of Sight) and BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight). VLOS and EVLOS both rely on the fact that the pilot can see the UAS at all times and can, therefore, monitor the airspace around the UAS for
These are fairly tried and tested techniques and have served the UK UAS industry well - allowing operators like SenSat to push the boundaries of what's possible in the construction industry and in turn supporting over £50 bn of Infrastructure projects.
BVLOS is a completely different question and requires much more thought, testing and regulatory change. Effectively, BVLOS is the equivalent of Autonomous Cars but without having the boundaries of a road and the rule of the highway to work within. In airspace, the rules of the air are far less hard and fast - and the fact that there is an additional dimension (altitude) to worry about indicates that it is potentially more complex. This does, however, also mean that there is far more space to operate in, meaning less chance of collision.
For business, BVLOS signifies unlimited potential for operations. It means that all areas of the UK are accessible via UAS and that most operations are feasible. It also forces technology (battery and autonomy) to flourish, making flights more efficient and safer - increasing profitability of the operators (hopefully making it cheaper for the customer).
For regulators, BVLOS is a challenge and should also be a benefit. It should be used as an opportunity to design a framework that will work for the next 50-100 years that will affect all forms of flight and air safety. It is an opportunity to actually improve the safety of all flights through the use of technology. The challenge for regulators is the transition phase from no integration (between manned and UAS) and full integration (where manned and UAS operate under the same systems and technology). This transition will take 5-10 years and there will be teething problems for both the regulator and businesses.
The balancing act is due to continue for the foreseeable future and neither side should feel that they should have priority over the other. Air safety should be the number one priority for everyone - but this should not come at the expense of innovation. Where operators can prove they can operate safely, they should be allowed to do so. Where they cannot, the regulator should be given the powers to act accordingly. Until there is a fully integrated system using technology and regulation in tandem that combines both manned and unmanned systems together into a single 'airspace', it will be up to both business and regulators to find the balance together - by working with each other.