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Study highlights tensions between types of unmanned aircraft users

A study has found that while unmanned aircraft users generally perceive New Zealand’s regulations for unmanned aircraft to be acceptable, more clarity is needed around the distinction between model aircraft and drones.

The study, authored by Massey University School of Aviation Senior Lecturer Dr Isaac Henderson, examined the opinions of 767 unmanned aircraft users regarding the current aviation safety regulations applicable to unmanned aircraft in New Zealand. The study, Aviation safety regulations for unmanned aircraft operations: Perspectives from users was published in Transport Policy in late June.

The study shows that a majority of users (61.93%) believe New Zealand’s regulations are about right as they are. However, 26.60% of participants qualitatively raised areas where they would like to see stricter regulations, and 33.25% raised areas where they would like to see less strict regulations (participants could raise both, even if they felt the regulations were about right as they are).

New Zealand currently follows a similar approach to aviation safety regulations for unmanned aircraft as many major jurisdictions, with rules around flying near airports, altitude limits, flight into controlled airspace and so on. However, it is somewhat peculiar in not requiring registration of unmanned aircraft, and it is also the only country where consent is required to overfly people or property (in other countries, minimum distances must be observed, or the operator must have a license to overfly people/property).
In 2020, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) released model regulations for unmanned aircraft. Included in these was the suggestion of regulating model aircraft clubs separately to other unmanned aircraft users.

This tension between model aircraft users and drone users (two types of unmanned aircraft) came to the fore in the study within the qualitative answers for stricter and less strict regulations. Nearly 15% of participants wanted stricter regulations for drones, UAVs, or quadcopters, while nearly 10% wanted less strict regulations for model aircraft, radio-controlled aircraft, gliders, and fixed-wing aircraft. The study uses some quotes from participants to emphasise the reasoning behind this tension:

Participant 91: “Model aircraft. This activity existed for decades with little trouble caused but irresponsible drone activities have the potential to tarnish the record”.

Participant 248: “I don’t regard RC scale model aircraft as a drone. Drones in my view are quad copters and I think it is extremely unfair to put folk like myself in the same basket as drone users.”

Participant 438: “Separate out recreational model aircraft from drone usage. They are different. Typically model aircraft is from an approved facility. Drones are anywhere.”

Despite this clear distinction in the minds of users, there is no internationally agreed definition of what model aircraft are to then differentiate them from other types of unmanned aircraft. One option is to follow ICAO’s advice and regulate the model flying clubs as recreational aviation organisations, which would give their members more ability to conduct operations at their own sites that would otherwise not be possible under the rules.

The European Union and Australia also have approaches for model flying clubs to register as such to continue operations that have not caused issues for many decades.

Model Flying New Zealand (formally, the New Zealand Model Aeronautical Association) was founded in 1948 and they continue to enjoy some grandfathered rights under the aviation safety regulations. However, they were trusted to self-regulate to a much higher degree before the update of New Zealand’s regulations for unmanned aircraft in 2015. Their paid-up members comply with their internal procedures when operating at their own sites, where they have additional privileges.

The tensions also highlight why the universal use of the term drone by government agencies may be inappropriate. The Ministry of Transport has used this term as an all-encompassing term for aircraft with no pilot on-board in its Enabling Drone Integration discussion document proposing substantial changes to New Zealand’s regulatory approach to unmanned aircraft. In its feedback on the discussion document following public consultation, a very common theme was an objection to the use of the term drone because it did not represent model aircraft or more sophisticated commercial-grade unmanned aircraft.

The Civil Aviation Authority is now also using the term drone in public-facing documents. This will potentially only act to further fuel tensions between user types who feel that they are all being unfairly put in the same basket.

Another important consideration highlighted by users in the study is the idea of having pilot qualifications (or licenses) for unmanned aircraft operators that would allow users extra privileges under the rules. This is currently not being explored by regulators in New Zealand, putting New Zealand at odds with major jurisdictions such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore. Having qualifications on offer would allow users standard means of being able to conduct more complex operations without compromising safety, as well as following a similar approach to the regulation of manned aircraft (enabling integration).

The study also finds areas where users have safety concerns that they believe require further regulations (e.g., operating areas like near airports), and areas where they feel that their operations are being unnecessarily constrained (e.g., not being able to fly their aircraft beyond visual line of sight). While these perspectives are useful for policymakers to understand the thinking of users, some perspectives conflict with bodies of evidence and reflect typical differences between the regulator and the regulated.

The full study can be read here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tranpol.2022.06.006

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