Is more regulation for drones the answer?
Tim Compston from SecurityNewsDesk takes a closer look at demands for the increased regulation of drones.
As the number of drones or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) in our skies continues to soar both for commercial and leisure use it is perhaps not too surprising that we are seeing more and more calls for enhanced regulation or, at the very least, more coordination and consistency of approach across borders.
When drone-related incidents hit the headlines, which they seem to do on an almost daily basis now, the checks and balances on their operation are once again centre stage. Examples of drone activity which has given cause for concern, includes: unidentified drones over-flying seven of France’s nuclear plants, drones coming too close to civilian aircraft, one actually hitting the Wallace Monument in Scotland or even interfering with firefighting – as happened in California this summer when helicopters had to be grounded.
In the US the interference that drones have already caused to the emergency services in the line of duty, such as firefighting, has led to reports that the US transport Secretary, Anthony Foxx is setting-up a taskforce to consider the potential to set-up a national register which could, potentially, hold a record of drones and their users. Regarding the taskforce, he said: “Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the US aviation system. It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground.” One thing which the taskforce will need to consider is which drones will fall under the remit of the register and which, perhaps smaller units that are basically just toys, will not.
David Proulx, vice president – product and marketing – from Canadian manufacturer Aeryon Labs which has brought to market Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, like the Skyranger, feels that the regulation of drones is a very topical conversation to have: “At the broadest level we are seeing some progressive de-regulation of airspace for unmanned aviation however a lot of that de-regulation, for example the Section 333 exemptions issued by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration in the US] are very much in the spirit of amassing a large sample set of data to then issue more permanent regulations once there is a better understanding of the usage. So whilst it is opening up – this is broadly speaking – I don’t see any permanence to it, there is still a sense in the market that we are waiting for a degree of maturity and finality to the regulations.”
Proulx adds that there are some great reference points coming out of certain markets of where regulators -are putting in place a statute that is forward thinking: “Recently Transport Canada has taken the additional step of introducing a compliant vehicle standard for small vehicles in Canada and we are the first such compliant vehicle. It speaks to not only who is flying it and what they are seeking to achieve but also the piece of equipment that they are using – we see that as a really critical distinction.”
A European view
On this side of the Atlantic, early 2015 the European Union (EU) Committee of the House of Lords published an in-depth report considering the ‘Civilian Use of Drones in the EU’. The report set out to evaluate plans by the European Commission to make the continent a global leader in RPAS. The committee came out in support of the Commission’s aims to have an internal EU market for the commercial use of RPAS with safety rules through the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Joint Authorities for Rule-making on Unmanned Systems (JARUS). The committee was, however, adamant that any changes should avoid in its words ‘stifling’ the existing RPAS industry – primarily small RPAS under 20kg – and was therefore of the view that any safety rules should be applied in proportion to any risk and, crucially, that member states should have a degree of flexibility with regards to small RPAS regulation.
More recently in September 2015, MEPs on the European Parliament’s transport committee supported a resolution also pushing for new EU regulation for civilian drones to ramp up safety standards in the sector. The text of the resolution was drafted by British Conservative MEP Jacqueline Foster. For its part, the European Commission believes that the way the expanding at a prodigious pace really requires consistent rules across the EU – which should help if they are operating across borders – with proposals for new measures likely to land by the end of the year. Apparently the European Commission is keen for the rules which mean that EU regulators are only involved when drones weigh over 150 kg to be changed.
Talking about the current regulation of drones in UK airspace, Richard Taylor a spokesperson for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority believes that it still suits the challenges as they exist currently: “I think that the rules are proportionate, they allow personal and commercial use of small unmanned aircraft – drones – without compromising the safety of the general public and other airspace users so I think that they are fit-for-purpose. We know that there are incidents and it is up to us to educate consumers about what we are trying to do. The rules are sensible as long as people stick to them the problems only occur when people ignore the rules that are there to protect the safety of the general public and other aircraft.”
In terms of educational initiatives, Taylor says that for 14 months or so the CAA has been working with retailers, with manufacturers, industry groups, to push the message, particularly to personal drone users – including through a so-called ‘Drone Code’ – that they can’t fly near an airport, they have to keep devices in line-of-site: “That is the crucial thing that we are trying to get out. They can’t be flown to a distance of one-and-a-half or two miles because that is when accidents happen, they need to keep the device within visual line-of-sight. We suggest no more than 400 feet vertically, 500 metres horizontally, and if they can do that there are no problems.”
Of course the fact is that whatever regulations are put in place, there are still going to be individuals who through ignorance or malicious intent will not follow them. In light of this, especially with security concerns there is more interest being shown in anti-drone systems. One such example, promoted as the world’s first fully integrated detect-track-disrupt Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS) was launched by a trio of British companies in May 2015.
The AUDS system, developed by Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems, is designed to combat the growing threat of malicious micro, mini and larger unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones. It is claimed that the system can detect a drone five miles (8km) away using electronic scanning radar, track it using infrared and daylight cameras and specialist software before disrupting the flight using an inhibitor to block the radio signals that control it.
Navigating a future for drones
The rise of drones is sure to continue this year and it will be interesting to see what happens in the end with the proposed national register in the US, if efforts to develop a Europe-wide approach to regulation take off and whether public education campaigns can help to stem the tide of drones in the hands of hobbyists flying where they shouldn’t be.