When Two Worlds Collide

The birth and rapid growth of the drone industry has caused some concerns within the Airline community and as an airline pilot that works out of one of the busiest airports in the world I wanted to share some thoughts. Drone technology has burst onto the scene over the last three years and whether we agree with it or not, it is here to stay. The question is how we can integrate this new and exciting technology into a space that is already occupied by an industry that has evolved over decades, at the pace at which the technological advances are requiring?

"how we can integrate this new and exciting technology into a space that is already occupied by an industry that has evolved over decades"

Although operating within a high risk environment, statistically, flying is the safest means of transport. This prestigious accolade didn’t just happen. It has been through years of development and self scrutiny, triumph and, sadly, total disaster that this can now be claimed, and almost overnight, there is a newcomer to the skies above us wanting to prove its worth.

The effects of birds ‘striking’ an aeroplane have been meticulously researched and aeroplanes have been built and tested with this in mind. Nobody knows what the effect of a drone striking an aircraft could be, but with the numbers of drones now flying around is it a foregone conclusion that we are soon going to find out?

So how do we embrace this growing industry but maintain the safety of our busy airways?

Regulation seems to be the crux of the matter and a careful balance needs to be struck. If the regulations are too restrictive then we risk creating such barriers to entry that the industry declines. Insufficient regulations and the dangers and risks will rise to an unacceptable level.

As it stands the regulation in the UK is really only applicable if the operator is intending to gain remuneration from the use of their drone, and although any operator, amateur or professional, is bound by the rules of the air as laid out in the Air Navigation Order, there is no requirement to show compliance or understanding of this unless you wish to gain a Permission For Aerial Work from the Civil Aviation Authority; in reality this means that anyone with the money can purchase a platform capable of flying above 10000ft with no knowledge of its operation and launch as soon as they arrive home. So if the regulations are set are there other options to encourage safe operations?

In my opinion the only way to achieve this is through relevant, well designed and accessible training courses. It is here some of the culture and experience grown in the aviation industry can be transferred to this emerging market to facilitate a strong safety culture from the word go. This was a strong reason for me to become a founder at UAV-Air.com and we have a number of training organisations emerging. These are predominantly satisfying the demand for the professional pilot and once approved by the CAA are known as a National Qualified Entity, they are able to recommend Pilots for their Permission for Aerial Work. The standard of these courses is set at a good level and ensures that people operating drones within their businesses or commercially are operating at a safe and acceptable level. This doesn’t however cater for the ‘everyday Joe’ operator and this is, I feel, where the greatest threat lies.

There are a few introductory drone training courses popping up, but alas with no requirement, legal or financial, to attend these the numbers are somewhat lacking.  An increase in the availability of these training courses, and the provision of varying levels, from the extremely basic to the more comprehensive is going to help, but one of the issues has to be financial. The price of purchasing a drone varies, starting from the moderately expensive, increasing to the incredibly expensive. If we are then asking a buyer to spend more time and money on a training course, what is their motivation? We can explain that it is really essential to learn how to operate safely, but for most this isn’t proving enough. One way this could be helped, and although little has happened in this area yet I get the feeling we are on the verge of some big changes here, is through insurance. Once some of the big players get involved and insurance prices go up, people will be looking for a way to reduce costs. The only way insurance companies will be able to understand the level of cover required and the competency of the operator will be through recognised qualifications provided by established training organisations. The problem here is that there is no requirement for amateur operators to have insurance, but if there was, this could be the next stage in drone regulation.

Will Coldwell, Director of UAV-Air.com and Senior Airline Pilot

UAV-Air.com is a CAA Approved National Qualified Entity (NQE) which delivers training leading to the award of a CAA Permission for Aerial Work (PFAW) which is a mandatory requirement to operate drones commercially in the UK.