RPAS guidance – more needs to be done

Written by: Philip Church
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Hardly a day goes by without at least one article in the mainstream news about some new development involving drones, UAVs, UAS or to use the correct term: RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems). Perhaps there has been a new technological development or use or there has been some infringement of aviation rules. Yet, despite much progress, the safe and secure operation of commercial RPAS within civil airspace is down to isolation and segregation. How much longer can this continue?

There is no doubt that the technical capabilities of RPAS have advanced leaps and bounds in recent years. Increased miniaturisation of electronics allows for increased computing power to be embedded in smaller and smaller platforms. This means that small RPAS are now capable of activities that would previously have been reserved for larger more regulated aircraft. Where previously, developing an RPAS would have required a high degree of expertise in design and assembly, some trial and error and a deep pocket, today they can be bought off the shelf for less than the cost of a new iPhone.

These changes in capabilities and cost have led to a proliferation of small and highly capable RPAS; consumer or 'prosumer' products and no longer reserved for industrial use. Indeed in many cases, it is only at the point when the RPAS is being used that a recreational or commercial purpose can be established. Indirectly, this has led to an increasing number of these platforms being flown by individuals unaware of the rules governing access to airspace, nor with any experience of operations in a club or commercial environment.

Understanding the purpose or use of the RPAS is going to be important in setting the requirements for where the RPAS can operate – i.e. commercial vs hobbyist. This raises two key points. Firstly, the commercialisation of RPAS is being led by smaller platforms than that envisaged in RPAS roadmaps of previous years. This means that the (harder) job of integrating smaller RPAS is going to have to be tackled earlier than originally planned. Secondly, it cannot be assumed that the people using these platforms will be familiar with aviation law. As illustrated by a recent FAA investigation, the lines can be blurred between commercial/recreational and safe/unsafe.

Given the commercial pressures from the vast numbers of RPAS manufacturers, a growing and broadening customer base, and a lack of global harmonisation on regulating commercial RPAS operations it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure easy access to guidance and procedures on where, when and by whom commercial and recreational operations can take place. Whilst good examples exist, these are mostly on a country-by-country basis and so do not support wider harmonised integration at a global level. In the meantime, the number of active RPAS systems continues to grow.

Helios has been helping ANSPs to address some of the safety implications of this integration. For more information contact the author.

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Phillip Church
Tel: +44 1252 451 651

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