By Owen Zupp
The road to a commercial pilot’s licence is a well-worn path. The challenge of accruing flight hours and passing exams is nothing new to aspiring aviators and the rules, governance and education standards have been relatively bedded down for decades. Now, the phenomenal growth of remotely piloted aircraft systems, or ‘drones’, has seen the rise of a new breed of pilots and with that a new set of needs, benefits and challenges.
Despite the protests of some, the term ‘drone’ has become the broadly accepted name for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The CASA website now uses the terminology “drones/remotely piloted aircraft” and even those outside the industry are able to comprehend the meaning of drone as opposed to some ambiguous acronym. However, regardless of the name, the rise of drones represents the most rapid growth in numbers in the aviation sector in memory.
With such growth comes a number of issues including legislating the industry. Unlike previous forms of aviation, flying drones can be very cheap to enter and with no minimum age. One is just as likely to spot a child flying a drone in a park these days as they are to see kids kicking a football. However, the scope of drones can range from a toy that fits in the hand to large commercial units capable of carrying payloads and performing complex commercial operations. Accordingly, the training and licensing of such a broad spectrum of activities is equally varied.
If you wish to fly a drone recreationally, there is no requirement to hold a licence to do so, although there are certain constraints upon the where, when and way in which you are permitted to fly. When entering the commercial sphere of operations, the regulations involved begin to take effect, but perhaps not as much as one might initially suspect. The governing requirements vary depending on whether operations involve a drone weighing less or more than two kilograms.
If the drone weighs less than 2kg, it falls under the ‘excluded category’ for commercial operations. As such, there is no requirement for the operator to hold a remote pilot licence (RePL) or operate under the oversight of an RPA operator’s certificate (ReOC). What is required in the first instance is that the operator hold an Aviation Reference Number, or ARN. Current aircraft pilots possess this number already, but for those requiring one it can be applied for online and granted in around five business days.
Armed with an ARN, the applicant must then complete an online notification form which outlines the nature of their operations and where they are to be conducted. The final step before submitting the form is to tick the box that all information submitted is accurate and that “I have read and understood the AC101-10 and will operate in accordance with the regulations and guidance in AC101-10.” Once acknowledged by CASA, the notification is valid for two years, although any changes to the operation in the interim require the re-submission of the form.
Excluded category operations can extend to drones weighing more than 2kg in the case of ‘landholder operations’. Aimed at farmers using drones in various land and stock management roles, it permits specific operations up to 25kg over their own property without a RePL. However, if you want to fly a remotely piloted aircraft commercially in Australia, outside the excluded category, then you need to be licensed and/or certified by CASA.
Gaining an RePL is divided into two ‘streams’. Without any prior aviation knowledge, an applicant is required to complete a course with an RPAS training provider. Otherwise, if the applicant has already passed an aeronautical knowledge exam for a flight crew licence, then only practical training is required, via an RPA training provider. When completed, an RePL holder may conduct commercial operations beyond the excluded category in conjunction with an ReOC holder.
Operating as an RePL holder and under an ReOC allows more than simply permitting operations above the 2kg threshold. It also potentially varies additional restrictions that exist within the excluded category relating to such constraints as airspace, restricted areas, night operations and physical separation from other people.
Learning to Fly.
Despite its name suggesting otherwise, Overall Photography is one of the organisations approved by CASA to conduct both the theoretical and practical ability, related to obtaining an RePL. It has consulted to a variety of universities, government bodies and even the ATSB. Its Director, Mitch Bannink, is a member of CASA’s Standards Consultative Committee in addition to sitting on the board of the Australian Association of Unmanned Systems (AAUS).
The basic RePL course is five days and following an assessment the candidate is then qualified. From the outset, Mitch emphasises that their RePL training focuses on teaching candidates to be a pilot first and foremost. And while this may sound obvious, it is not always the case as the very nature of drones is often seen to be hand-in-hand with aerial photography. From his perspective, Mitch sees photography as a specialty and warrants specialty training, along with other areas such as mapping and surveillance. It is something to attend to only after the fundamentals are safely in place.
During the practical training component, a variety of aircraft can be used, including small remotely controlled helicopters and even ‘flying wings’ such as the ‘Parrot Disco’. However, the multi-rotor drones seem to be the most prevalent and these range in size from below 2kg to very, very large units.
On a sunny afternoon, this author was able to gain some insight into what is on offer at both ends of the spectrum. Below 2kg, the Phantom IV is the most popular drone available that possesses real commercial capacity. With an iPad or Android device bracketed in a control unit, two multi-directional control columns sit beneath the thumbs to control the drone when its airborne. However, taking off can be as simple tapping the appropriate button on the iPad screen and watching the device increase its revs and lift into a steady hover.
The screen offers up a drone’s eye view, transmitted back from its onboard camera which can pivot, tilt and focus on command, but there is far more information displayed. Distance, height, velocity, a moving map, battery life, signal strength and camera commands, to name just a few. As the control columns are moved to and fro, the drone responds in turn and the entire operation appears to be very straightforward, but make no mistake, even below 2kg these drones can move at quite a speed and have the potential to cause damage if used incorrectly.
At the other end of the scale sits the DJI M600 pro with retractable landing gear, 6 rotors, 6 batteries and the ability to lift 15kg payloads. Resembling a massive spider while at rest, it looks space-age in flight. Beneath its exterior, this drone houses more redundancies than a 737 or A320 with 3 GPSs, 3 IRSs (IMU), 3 compasses and a dual flight controller. Consequently, at start up the M600 runs through a complex series of self-tests before it grants itself a green light to fly and its scope of operations when airborne is greater than some of its smaller siblings by virtue of these systems.
Across the range of drones, some of the features are astounding. They can be programmed to follow and film a moving target, protect itself against flying into objects using eye-like sensors and phenomenally, return to within 30 cm of its the starting point, land and shut down at the press of a single button.
Herein lies a paradox. The operation of these drones can be relatively simple, but that simplicity could easily breed complacency. And that is not the only issue.
Even though the flying of these drones is well supported by their various systems, they leave the overwhelming impression that they are not toys – not by a long stretch. They are fun to operate no doubt, but they are commercial tools that can pack a punch. Momentum equals mass by velocity (p=mv) and 2kg by the velocity this author witnessed potentially produces a momentum that would be catastrophic to the individual or its bigger brethren in the sky such as an airliner. Hence, the importance of training and not only in the skills of manipulation, but in the awareness of the operating environment.
For commercial operators beyond the excluded category, there seems to be checks and balances in place with required training, but within the excluded category the process seems decidedly simple to the extreme. Completing the online notification for commercial operations below 2kg takes only a few minutes and ticking the box that AC101-10 has been read and understood appears to be a little thin for a document that really needs to be thoroughly read and understood.
And even if it is read, the ‘AC’ in AC101-10 stands for “Advisory Circular” and logically enough it is purely advisory and peppered with words such as “may” and “should”. Well intentioned, but not particularly black and white. It rightly highlights that “The structure of airspace, particularly near busy aerodromes, can be very complex” but with no required training it is hard to imagine how an operator would go about interpreting aeronautical charts with regards to airspace. Mitch explains that there are courses available such as his company’s “Drone Basics” which address these issues, but they are not required training. Excluded operations may have sought to minimise the red tape, but is it just too simple?
A Growth Industry.
The speed at which remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), or drones, have grown in our society is nothing short of phenomenal. They span recreational and commercial uses, but also offer a great deal in vital roles such as search and rescue. They are here to stay and their technology and potential will surely continue to grow increasing their reach across an even greater spectrum, performing duties which haven’t even been conjured at this time.
Keeping pace with such growth is a difficult task, but one of the cornerstones of safety is training. Knowledge not only enhances the ability to conduct normal operations soundly, but enhances the awareness of potential dangers before they even occur. Training at all levels of commercial operations would seem to be a logical step, whether the craft is less than 2kg or not as even the excluded category offers privileges that should call for the operator to demonstrate a level of understanding and competency.
As they say, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and that responsibility also exists when we take to the skies – regardless of the size of the aircraft.