Factsheet 1: Flying Constraints

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Why the need for constraints?

Traditionally unmanned aircraft have predominantly been used by hobbyists and model aircraft enthusiasts. Recently, the use of these systems has greatly increased, particularly in commercial areas. A popular commercial use for UAVs is as a platform for surveillance and data capture, with operators mounting various types of imaging systems on these.

The increasing popularity and changing application of UAVs has made it necessary to introduce regulations which mitigate their potential risks, as well as educate operators in the responsibility associated with using them.

What is the regulation?

In 2010 the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) introduced a set of new regulations aimed at fulfilling this purpose. These regulations are primarily defined by weight. This article will focus on Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUAs); systems with a mass of 20kg and less, in the context of conducting aerial work through data acquisition.

The CAA defines conducting aerial work as flying an aircraft on a commercial basis with the purpose of obtaining ‘valuable consideration.’ In order to conduct aerial work, the operator must have ‘permission for aerial work’ (PFAW) from the CAA.

In order to obtain this permission, the operator must be able to prove that they can safely, competently and responsibly control a SUA in UK airspace. This involves the submission of an Operations Manual which details information such as emergency procedures, safety checks and technical specifications of any SUAs to be used. Operators must also provide proof of insurance and of remote pilot competence. The latter of these must be proved by the successful completion of a pilot competency course by a CAA approved body, of which there are currently only two in the UK. These courses involve an intensive ground school, theory exam and a practical flight assessment. During the latter of these, operators must demonstrate both regular and emergency flight procedures which must comply fully with the aforementioned Operations Manual.

As part of the above mentioned assessments, the operators must demonstrate every effort to comply with a number of operational limitations defined by the CAA. The overriding principle under which operators must fly is that they will not “recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property, stated in Article 138 of the Air Navigation Order (ANO). More specifically, SUA operators must comply with ANO Articles 166 and 167 as follows:

  • Operators will not cause or permit any article or animal to be dropped from a SUA so as to endanger persons or property (regardless of whether it is attached to a parachute or not).
  • The operator may only fly if they can be reasonably satisfied that the flight can be safely made. They must assess flight conditions (such as weather, site congestion, pilot health and other air users) against CAA regulations as well as the technical capabilities of the SUA.
  • The operator must maintain a visual line of sight (VLOS) with the SUA. This is defined as a maximum of 500m away from the operator, and may be less depending on factors such as the SUA’s size, weather conditions and physical obstructions.
  • The SUA must not be flown:

-       Over or within 150m to a congested area, defined by the CAA as “any area of a city, town or settlement which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes.”

-       Over or within 150m of an organised open-air assembly of 1000 or more people.

-       Within 50m of any vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the flight team.

-       Within 50m of any person not under control of the flight team (including the flight team). During take-off and landing, the SUA may not fly within 30m of any person not under control of the flight team.

-       In Class A, C, D or E airspace without permission of the appropriate Air Traffic Control Unit (ATCU).

-       In an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the ATCU without their permission.

-       At a height of more than 400ft above ground level (approximately 120m). This is to avoid manned aircraft, which must fly at altitudes of above 500ft. With regards to the point made earlier, the operator must maintain VLOS with the SUA at all times, and so must reduce this altitude if this cannot be achieved.

If the operator wishes to fly outside any of these regulations, they must include this in their Operations Manual alongside rigorous reduction procedures. There may also be a need for another flight assessment under these altered conditions. Beyond this, operations must also comply with the Data Protection Act.

Challenges to current regulation

The CAA intends this regulation to be as ‘light touch’ and as proportionate as possible, resulting in rules which provide a very much ‘one size fits all’ solution. They are under pressure from industry professionals to alter this to allow greater levels of freedom as many find the regulations too strict for their needs. There have been suggestions there should be two levels of legislation – standard and extended, with the latter being for professionals who have the need, resources and ability to operate safely within less confined regulations.   

Another result of current regulation being intended ‘light touch’ and proportionate is that some organisations outside of them, both intentionally and unintentionally. A solution to this would be to increase the degree to which the regulations are promoted, particularly drawing attention to the need for commercial operations to have CAA permission. This could be through a variety of forms, such as requiring UAV manufacturers to better educate customers on CAA requirements and publicising the consequences of not complying with these. There have been steps towards this recently, notably two prosecutions of those in breach of CAA regulations (one for the sale of aerial footage without a CAA PFAW, and one for dangerous flying by a hobbyist, who was flying illegally through a restricted zone, an air traffic zone and within 50m of a structure not under his control).

This would be a step towards discouraging organisations from not complying with CAA regulations, therefore improving the overall industry standards with respect to both safety and privacy. This, combined with the overall promotion of UAVs as a positive tool (as opposed to the negativity associated with the term ‘drone’), may help to improve the public image of UAVs. In turn, this may allow for a rethink of the very strict guidelines which currently constrict legitimate UAV professionals.

In contrast to the regulations being far too general to meet the needs of every organisation, the issue has arisen that pilot qualifications are incredibly specific. Pilots are assessed and become qualified on specific UAVs (for example a DJI Phantom or S1000). There have been calls to make available more general qualifications (such as an octocopter remote pilot qualification, or something even more general such as a fixed wing remote pilot qualification) to which the CAA has so far appeared reluctant due to the great variation that exists between UAVs.

Aside from regulations being very strict and ‘one size fits all,’ and some organisations operating outside them, another challenge to current regulations is market saturation. The number of organisations entering the industry has increased exponentially in the last few months, and will continue to do so (in their report, the Teal Group predict global UAV expenditures will rise from $5.2 billion to $11.6 billion a year), most likely caused by the high exposure of UAVs in the media and their ‘gimmick factor.’ Whilst training and pilot assessment facilities have grown somewhat to accommodate this, places on these courses are consistently filled up far in advance. Furthermore, it can take the CAA up to six weeks to approve a PFAW, and even longer if there are any issues with the application. This is an obvious problem to operators as it postpones their ability to conduct their business. It also presents the issue of the skies becoming more congested with UAVs, with the regulation potentially needing to adapt to account for this (particularly addressing the increased risk of collisions).

Further Information

For further information on the constraints affecting UAV operations, please consult CAP 722 and CAP 393 (Articles 166 and 167). Please note that these are not always exhaustive documents and the CAA will periodically notify operators of alterations to the legislation. It is also important to be aware that CAA regulations should be considered as an absolute minimum, and it is ultimately the pilot’s responsibility to decide whether a flight can safely and responsibly be made. 

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