Revised UK drone regulations: What recent changes mean to Civil Infrastructure

On the 31st December 2020, drone regulations changed in the UK with new variations coming in for different flight purposes, governing how pilots can now operate their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The updated restrictions essentially mean more people now need to register their drones (even the smallest of flying devices) with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to help the Government track flights across the country and trace drone owners if used in an irresponsible or inappropriate way.

The revised regulation also removes any limitation and ambiguity around commercial and non-commercial drone operations, with the distinction between the two no longer there. Instead, guidelines are in place under a new law which determines whether a pilot needs to complete the CAA’s official drone theory test in order to receive a digital flyer ID based on the weight of their drone–so anyone flying a drone over 250g.

While this streamlines legislation, drones are now restricted to a set of categories, and classed as either low risk, medium risk or high risk depending on their size and capabilities. With most drones falling into the low risk category, this means they can be flown by a majority of people. It also means that potentially more people / smaller outfits may take up drone operation for commercial purposes without the need for a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operation)–CAA approved training and the legal document you need to operate a drone commercially in UK airspace. Here is an overview of the new categories:

  • Medium-risk or specific-category drones will have to have authorisation from the national aviation authority on the basis of a risk assessment.

  • High-risk or certified-category drones will need to follow aviation rules, and this will apply to future drone flights with passengers.

Regulation impact on the Civil Infrastructure industry

This may all seem like a positive step forward in terms of drone usage, particularly for amateur drone pilots, who can now fly commercially with fewer restrictions as long as they are registered or have the right certification in place (if needed). However, it also raises concerns in terms of how this may impact industries like civil infrastructure–which rely on drones more and more today to capture data such as topographical surveys to support the design, build and operational phase of an infrastructure project–some of which are highly complex.

For example, as there is no longer a need for a PfCO for lighter / cheaper drones, there is a higher likelihood that more smaller outfits will appear offering drone commercial services to a certain level at bargain-basement rates. Without the training or experience required to deliver quality data safely to the required standard needed by a complex industry, this could be potentially damaging to civil infrastructure. Essentially the regulation focus is now simply to align pilot competency with the level of risk that each flight presents, which is determined by the weight of the drone when in flight, how close the drone will fly from people not directly involved with the flight, and how close the drone will fly from built-up areas (e.g. towns, cities, industrial areas, recreation areas etc.).

These pilots will more likely be using consumer-grade equipment and smaller drones meant for hobbies, domestic or personal purposes, so unfit for the job at hand in civils or construction, and with limited capacity. The pilots themselves may also not have the standard of non-standard permissions and exemptions required to fly close to an infrastructure site–so within 150m or less of a congested area or open crowd, or 50m of people properties and objects.

And while there are certifications in place that mean a pilot can gain greater permissions depending on the drone weight, these can be done in less than 24 hours and don’t guarantee drone flying experience. All these pilots really need to operate commercially is to complete the CAA Drone Registration (DMARES), abide by the Drone Code and have EC785/2004 compliant insurance.

As an example of certification, the A2 Certificate of Competency (A2 CfC), which is a new qualification and has been introduced as part of these revised regulations, allows pilots to fly certain aircraft within these new set of regulation categories–in this case the A2 subcategory. This allows a pilot to fly closer to people with a C2 class aircraft or drone less than 2 kg MTOM (maximum take-off mass), if they hold the certificate. A pilot will also be able to fly down to 30m of uninvolved people, or down to 5m if the aircraft has been switched to a low-speed mode with a C2 class aircraft. The other new certification is the General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC), which enables operation of drones weighing between 2 kg and 25 kg within built-up areas, and more related to commercial operations.

Prerequisite of selecting a drone survey provider

As an industry that relies on data quality and accuracy to ensure people and infrastructure is safe and free from risk, here are some of the things civil infrastructure firms, and those responsible for surveying and data capture, should look out for when selecting a company to conduct a drone survey:

  • What drones are they using? Multirotor (e.g. quadhopper or hexacopter) drones or fixed wings? At Sensat we differentiate not only on the experience of our team, but also on the quality of our drones, camera and sensor equipment to capture data. We only use the best technology to give our customers the best quality.

  • Can your drone survey supplier provide survey grade data? Has it been quality assured? What are the levels of accuracy? How are they verifying the survey? Always ask to see the quality of the data and question the data accuracy before you commit. At Sensat, we can show the quality of our data before any flight is conducted, and our data is tested for quality and accuracy by our expert team before it is handed over to you for any project.

  • Why are you procuring data for your project or asset? What information do you need and how will it be used? At what stage of the project will you want to use this data? Define cost and performance benchmarks for your project and understand what data sources are important to you. Get to grips with what you need and the output you require before making a commitment, and do you need to capture data at every stage of the asset lifecycle or can existing data be utilized? Any good quality data provider will help you assess your project and guide you in the right direction of what is required for each site scan.

  • Can your provider make your data accessible to the entire team? At Senast we deliver all our data in our visualisation platform, which is being continually developed. Data can be shared and collaborated on across all project stakeholders, and accessed anytime, anywhere–even remotely. Once it is in the platform measurements, mark-ups and more informed decisions can be made, while also overlaying existing and new data to have a full project/site view.

  • Finally, ask for references.

Quality over price

With enhanced exemptions and experience to carry out work on even the most complex sites, Sensat not only delivers the highest quality topographical data, but adds value at every stage. We do this by:

The long and short of the message is be careful what you sign up for. The age old saying is true, you pay for what you get, and if you are unsure about the provider’s experience, capabilities, equipment or the quality of data they will provide, look elsewhere. While these revised regulations may streamline the drone industry, they may not streamline the commercial aspect, and while competition is healthy, it can also mean the market is open to more cowboys.