Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), has recently announced amendments to the regulations governing the operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, more commonly known as drones).
Australian UAV is of the opinion these amendments need further consideration for their potential safety impacts, as they threaten to increase the risk of serious accidents. Such an outcome would be a setback to our industry at a time when it is beginning to gain traction and public acceptance, offering immense opportunities for innovation and efficiency gains to the Australian economy.
The CASR Part 101 amendments of 24th March 2016 cover a number of areas, but the most controversial is the plan to allow unlicensed, untrained and uninsured operators to fly drones weighing up to 2 kilograms for commercial gain.
CASA’s remit is aviation safety, summarised in their mission statement , being:
“To enhance and promote aviation safety through effective safety regulation and by encouraging industry to deliver high standards of safety”
Allowing drones to be operated in airspace shared by manned aviation by people with no training, knowledge or insurance is quite obviously not enhancing aviation safety, so we need to question their motivation in proposing these changes.
Like all government bodies, CASA has limited resources, and they have been stretched quite thin by the sudden growth of drone operations in Australian skies. They have been struggling to keep up with demand in this area, and so are understandably looking for a means by which to lighten their load. However, as the arbitrator of aviation safety in the country, we feel they should not be free from responsibility for small drones until such time as another organisation could be put in place to deal with them more specifically. In the meantime, we would encourage supporting CASA with additional resources to police and enforce dangerous and illegal drone operations, rather than simply removing them from their purview.
Small Drones Need More Oversight, Not Less
There are close to 500 licensed drone operators in Australia , and so far there have been remarkably few incidents, presumably due to the high degree of training and certification required. There have, however, been a number of high profile reports of unlicenced operators taking risks and causing injury.
In the next 6-18 months we will likely see the first drone collisions with manned aviation beginning to occur. Statistically this is a near certainty, as the number of drones grows exponentially along with reported ‘near miss’ sightings by pilots . Trained and licensed operators know where they can and can’t fly, the dangers involved, and the risk to their license if they bend or break the rules. So it is most likely these collisions will be with small drones flown by amateur or unlicensed operators. Instead of working toward greater public awareness and increasing enforcement of the safety regulations to this group, CASA are instead lowering the barrier to entry and encouraging the growth of the very segment which will be the most
likely cause of the accidents .
Although there are many stipulations attached to the regulation amendments, the majority of people will only hear the headline message and assume that ‘anything goes’ if their drone is under 2kg. You can already see this interpretation on the internet amateur drone forums, and it is very difficult to put the cat back in the bag once the general word of mouth message has been spread. People hear what they want to hear, so CASA needs to be very careful with the way the message is communicated if they want to prevent that, underscoring the additional stipulations at every opportunity.
We can’t assume that people without any training will even be aware of, let alone be capable of following the finer points of the new rules. Aviation is a complex field, and without training you can’t expect people to know how to look up the definitions of such things as controlled airspace, military zones, restricted zones or the locations of helipads. While there will be a requirement for unlicensed operators to notify CASA when they commence their first operations, they are not required to notify their specific locations on an ongoing basis, so there is no training and no oversight in the proposed amendments.
The Exempted RPA Class Should Be Reduced in Weight
Given the increasing miniaturisation of cameras and other sensors, we don’t disagree that there should be a category for small unlicensed drone operations.
However, this should only encompass essentially harmless drones at a much lower weight, perhaps 0.5kg is appropriate, but possibly less. The FAA UAV task force has recommended a limit of 0.25kg for such a category. Regardless of the specific weight, this limit should be based on impact testing with real drones, not just theory, with the aim that you could confidently run one into a person or helicopter and expect it to have a near nil chance of causing a fatality. That certainly is not the case with a 2kg drone.
We challenge anyone who says a 2kg drone is harmless to stand in a field while someone flies one into them at speed , or sit in a helicopter hovering nearby while a 2kg drone is flown into its rotor blades. The current amendments seem only to have taken into account the impact of collisions to airliners (which is indeed likely to be minimal), not the impact on helicopters, light aircraft or people on the ground, which can quite easily be a fatal scenario.
CASA’s own research paper from 2013 states :
” A 2kg RPA at 10m/s is predicted to cause skull fracture, even when impacting with its flat side” .
This research is based on a very conservative impact model (i.e. “…assumption that the RPA does not possess sharp protrusions…such protrusions [are] likely to lead to skinpenetrating (and skullpenetrating) injuries” ). Also, note that drones are typically flying much faster than the 10m/s speed they state (which is only 36 km/h), particularly if dropping from the sky in the case of a mechanical failure. So by their own research, a skull fracture is a likely outcome from a 2kg drone collision with a person, even at slow speed and impacting with a flat area of the airframe.
Anything faster or sharper has a high likelihood of injuries in the severe or fatal categories.
So to be safe, rather than starting with such a high weight limit of 2kg, we advocate initially starting with a lower number, which can be increased over time if accident levels and outcomes remain minor.
Putting heavy objects into the sky, propelled by sharp spinning blades is obviously an activity containing an element of risk. The primary focus for any professional drone operator is how to manage and mitigate that risk, and for anything that slips through the cracks there is the backstop of insurance.
The new amendments have an obvious omission in not requiring insurance for the unlicensed operations. We strongly urge a correction to require public liability insurance of at least $10 million for all drone operations.
While some would argue that drones of this size do not pose sufficient risk to necessitate insurance, here are a few quite likely scenarios causing damages in the range of millions:
● Fracturing a bystander’s skull (an outcome from CASA’s own research , see above)
● Crashing into the roof of a house being filmed for Real Estate promotion, the volatile lithium batteries on board starting a fire within the roof cavity
● Crashing onto a road with fast moving traffic, causing a multivehicle pileup and/or headon collision if there is no median strip
● Hitting an aircraft on approach to an airport, or a lowflying helicopter.
While a 2kg drone is unlikely to bring down an airliner unless it strikes the tailplane, the damage bill will still be substantial, particularly when including the airline’s downtime due to maintenance
It is easy to imagine a much longer list, but hopefully those scenarios are enough to give pause, and realise that insurance is necessary for all drone operators, whether they be hobbyists, unlicensed or professionals.
Before these amendments come into effect we strongly urge one of the following changes:
1) Lower the Exempt RPA weight from 2kg to 0.5kg, and follow that up by impact testing using real drones to ensure it is validated to be a safe threshold; or
2) Maintain the requirement for a Remote Pilot License / Controller Certificate to ensure anyone operating in the sub 2kg category has at least basic training and awareness of aviation safety, airspace and so on.
Either way, we feel it is absolutely vital that drone operators carry at least $10M in public liability
insurance, given the risks inherent in the activity.
In writing this article we are of course coming from an angle of selfinterest for our business (as well as a true concern for safety).
AUAV is not so concerned with losing business directly to unlicensed operators, as our clients would generally favour a professional business over an unlicensed operator. We are concerned, however, by the possibility of this new industry being set back by the accidents that are likely to
occur if these amendments come into effect in their current form.
Drones are a powerful new technology, with the capacity to make great improvements to our society, lives and the economy. But like any technology they are disruptive and can also have negative effects. Positive drone uses are beginning to sway public opinion in their favour, whereas only a few years ago they were viewed entirely negatively. We don’t want that needle to swing back now because of dangerous acts and accidents being caused by unlicensed and untrained drone operators.
Australian UAV, Director of Operations NSW
8th April, 2016
About Australian UAV
Australian UAV (AUAV) is one of the country’s most experienced drone operators, with in excess of 1900 flights for more than 100 government and commercial clients since 2013. Our core business is aerial mapping and survey, and also the inspection of tall or otherwise inaccessible assets and infrastructure.
With national coverage from professional, licensed and insured drone operators, we aim to be the obvious choice for clients with a need for reliable and timely aerial data delivery.
Australian UAV is currently in talks with investors to further accelerate our growth.
For more information on Australian UAV please see www.auav.com.au