DronePunks recently spoke to Jonathan Nicholson, the Assistant Director Corporate Communications at the Civil Aviation Authority, about a range of issues affecting drones in the UK. Points covered included:
– The future of drone regulation
– The fact that, despite Amazon Prime Air Testing, the CAA has no policy on autonomous flight
– The importance of correctly reporting drone incidents
– And the CAA’s Dronecode
Below is the full text of the interview.
DronePunks: Do you think consumers have enough awareness of what they can and can’t do?
Jonathan Nicholson: Absolutely, yes, I think that is a big issue for us. So what we’ve historically seen with things like model aircraft and model helicopters and radio controlled stuff is they tend to be aviation people. So not necessarily pilots, but they’re into aviation and they have an idea about what goes on in the airspace above their heads when they’re flying. But obviously for the consumer case drone user, that isn’t the case. It’s not their fault, it’s not their issue, because there’s no need for them to have that knowledge before. But now when they start flying a drone they go a few hundred feet or near an airfield they’re potentially causing aviation an issue. So we’re not blaming them for not having the knowledge, it’s just a fact. They never needed the knowledge before as an individual, but when they get a drone they do, so it’s about how we get that knowledge to them, if you like.
DP: What’s the best way to deter irresponsible pilots?
JN: I think it’s education. I think it’s getting to people and explaining to them what their responsibilities are and you could absolutely say they are as much a pilot as anybody else that’s operating anything in the airspace. They have responsibilities, they need to know certain things. Also, there’s a difference as well between what they’re doing and where they’re doing it, so people flying a drone in their back garden, there are absolutely things they need to know and do but from our perspective as an aviation regulator they’re not really our target audience, unless their garden happens to be very large and at the end of a runway or something like that. We’re interested in really explaining to people that when they take their drone out, when they’re flying near an airfield or near an airport or when they’re flying at higher altitudes, they’re all things they need to consider and know what else is up there, around, as well.
DP: With devices like toys, you’re not interested in that end of the market?
JN: No, no, no, so anything that fits in the palm of your hand or it’s going bounce off. I’ve got a little toy one that I fly at home, that fits in the palm of my hand. So, from that aspect, no, we are an aviation safety regulator. We want to absolutely encourage people to enjoy their drones, fly their drones, we’re not a killjoy. We’re not out to say, “No drones.” Or something like that. We want people to enjoy drones as a consumer and use all the great commercial possibilities of drones, but we want people to do it safely in a way that works with other aviation that exists. That’s what we want. Toys have no impact on other aviation, so, in the nicest possible way, from what we’re doing we’re not interested in those.
DP: There’s no bottom weight limit is there?
JN: Not at the moment. So that’s one thing that potentially could be looked at in future is the fact that at the moment technically all the rules and regulations apply to the one that I’ve got. That is a bit unrealistic because there’s no need for those rules to apply to those. So that might be something that’s looked at in future, yes, to put an upper [lower] limit on the safety requirements.
DP: Can you speculate on what that might be?
JN: Don’t know, it would certainly be at a weight where they could have an impact on people or aviation. So, certainly I would strongly think things like Phantoms and Parrot Bebops or whatever would absolutely be included. But the palm-of-your-hand toys would be excluded, so somewhere between those two points, probably.
DP: Do you have any interest in mandatory safety features like geofencing or parachutes?
JN: We absolutely would encourage people to fit geofencing, as much as possible. I think we see there’s a number of elements that could come together to solve the issue. Education, obviously. And technical solutions like geofencing is absolutely another one. I think the government are planning a consultation on drones late this year. That might well include things like questions around technological things, what should be mandated, what shouldn’t, what should be a nice-to-have rather than a legal requirement. At the moment geofencing is something, as I say, we would like people to fit, but there’s no mandate for it. I think that’s something that should be a proper nationwide consultation. So that’s probably something the government consultation should cover.
DP: Do you know what kind of features might become legally required?
JN: No. That would again be for government to put into their consultation. Certainly, obviously, as you get higher up with the drone size and world then there are a lot of legal requirements, for the certification of the drone and the operators themselves. It just depends how low you think that should go, or what elements you might want to put in a lower level. You might decide that it doesn’t actually bring any benefit to mandate them. So that would be a decision to be taken, there’s lots of fors and againsts for both sides. But certainly as the higher up you get in size of drones then ultimately they are classed as an aircraft and have to meet all the safety requirements of an airliner if you get to the very large commercial drones. So it is a horses-for-courses kind of setup, I think.
DP: Are you involved in any efforts to promote industry standards in geofencing or to promote individual providers?
JN: As a regulator we can’t promote individual companies or organisations or whatever. What I would say is there is already an international standard, set and laid out aviation system to map airspace, to map zones where things aren’t allowed, to alert the aviation industry to things that are happening. As far as the data you might use and put into a system, that already is standarised for aviation and freely available. So there are for example, things like SkyDemon which is available for pilots and small recreational aircraft. SkyDemon is a free website and you can go on and say, “I’m going to fly here.” And it shows you all the airspace you would go into and any particular restrictions that might be in place at that time et cetera. And they just use the data that is freely out there, provided by the aviation world. The data’s definitely there, but it wouldn’t be for us to specifically recommend a particular type of software or application or whatever.
DP: Do you work with the manufacturers at all in terms of compliance or the things they’re bringing over?
JN: So certainly as part of this campaign we’ve been talking to DJI and the manufacturers and a lot of drone associations. People like Maplin. To actually get them onboard and they are very, very enthusiastic, all of them to do what they can and help us. Because obviously we’re helping them as well. They’re very enthusiastic to work with us and see what they can do. Certainly look at novel and interesting ways to educate people.
DP: Can you comment on the kind of things they’ve been doing to help?
JN: We’ve literally just started the conversation with them, but certainly DJI have been involved in helping to put forward ideas. We’ve been doing some consumer research in the past couple of weeks about drone users and they’ve helped us with that. We’re talking to the resellers. People like DJI already put our Dronecode into their boxes, Maplin provide it at point of sale. It’s about how we can work together to do that even better, make it easier for people like DJI and Maplin to get good information to people. To see what [how] we can work together to just move it on to the next level. Putting the leaflet in the box is great but we know – I never look at instruction manuals, so there are lots of people out there like that, as well. So, what can we do? what else can we do? What can we do differently, to try and reach people in as many different ways as possible, what are the interactions, what are the touch-points, what’s the art of the possible?
DP: On the other end of the spectrum there have been a very small number of cases of people being prosecuted for misusing drones. How much interest do you have in actively pursuing people who are acting irresponsibly?
JN: That’s the job of the police. The police enforce laws and that’s what they do. We’ve got two approaches. One is absolutely a big carrot to people about education, about making flying their drones fun but safe but if people do break the rules, do act negligently, fly their drones dangerously, as far as affecting aviation then that’s the stick. And people do need to realise there are rules, there are rules. People have ended up being caught and people will end up being caught and ultimately if you are prosecuted and found guilty for endangering an aircraft, you can go to prison.
DP: Is anyone monitoring misuse?
JN: Not directly no. Obviously we get reports from other drone users. We get reports from pilots. We get reports from air traffic control. And air traffic control will alert the police in the local area as well and can obviously act. It’s interesting that it’s changing to be a certain element of self-policing, if you like. So a couple of years ago when we used to go on YouTube to comment on some drone footage that we thought had probably been shot illegally or dangerously we’d put a nice comment on there about, “Not sure this was shot safely. Here’s a link to our Dronecode,” and there’d instantly be people coming on to comment, “F*** off CAA, you’re just destroying our hobby,” and, “Stay out of it, this is just someone having fun,” and all that kind of stuff. Now, before we can get anywhere near the comment on a YouTube or something like that, there are tens if not more of drone users going, “What are you doing? You’ll get our hobby a bad name, blah blah blah, this is outrageous.” There is an element now of the hobby, the industry, self-policing and actually wanting to preserve and enhance what they’ve got and realising that things that are bad don’t do them any good.
DP: Can you comment on occasions when unidentified objects have come into contact with planes and there has been doubt about whether incidents have involved drones?
JN: It is very, very important that the aviation industry as a whole realises that accurate reporting is key and that we can’t get into a cry wolf scenario. Obviously a lot of the traditional aviation industry is apprehensive about drones because they hear of safety incidents, they may even have experienced safety incidents themselves. I’ve spoken to small, light-aircraft pilots who’ve had close encounters with drones and obviously it’s a scary thing for them and it’s quite right that they report it. But we must make sure that things that pilots used to report as, “I’m not sure what that was, so I’m just going to say I’m not sure what that was,” don’t suddenly get reported as, “I’m not sure what that was, but I’m going to say it was a drone.” We must maintain the integrity of the reporting systems that we have and it’s absolutely right that things that do involve a drone get reported as a drone but it’s absolutely wrong that things where people aren’t sure what it is get reported as a drone. They should be reported as, “I’m not sure what that was.” If that makes sense.
DP: In the US there’s a national register of drone owners. Is that a possibility in the UK?
JN: It’s a very complicated issue. Lots of fors and againsts on both sides. It might be something the government consult on later this year. Our view as the CAA and my personal view, is that it’s far better to prevent an incident in the first place and to stop an incident happening. I know somebody said the other day, we don’t exactly have cupboards full of drones that have been found after incidents. There has not been a drone located or a drone user located in any of the safety incidents involving aviation. Registration is very much post an event, where it could have an impact. We would rather prevent the event in the first place. It’s a complicated subject, lots of fors and againsts. Ultimately it will be for the government to decide if we have registration in this country.
DP: Would you say the CAA is opposed to a drone register?
JN: I think we would rather concentrate our efforts in other areas and prevent an incident in the first place. We’re not 100% convinced on what the use for a drone [register] would be.
DP: Does the CAA have any policy relating to terrorism?
JN: No, we are absolutely, purely an aviation safety regulator. Anything beyond that is for the Home Office, Department of Transport, police, security services et cetera. All of our focus is on making sure drones integrate safely into the aviation system. Anything else is beyond our remit, if you like.
DP: Do you have any strategy to assist the use of drones in industry?
JN: Absolutely, we’ve got thousands of commercial drone users approved by us in the UK now doing some amazing things. We were out with a survey company last Thursday who have been doing some amazing work. They literally just finished surveying all the flood defences in East Anglia by drone and have done an amazing job. Things like that are very exciting and what we need to make sure is that the ability for that to develop and grow in a sustainable way isn’t affected by drone safety incidents. That’s one of the key drivers for our education programme, as well as obviously number one making sure that the safety of everybody in the air is as good as it can be. But number two, making sure that these amazing things that drones can do, they can continue to do.
DP: Can you comment on the Amazon Prime Air testing?
JN: The Amazon trials are very much trials. They’re being done in a very contained environment so we’ve had people contact us going, “I’m not happy that Amazon are going to be delivering by drone in my neighbourhood,” or whatever. No, that’s not what we’ve given permission for. We’ve given permission for very controlled testing in a very specific location under very specific circumstances. And technically, it’s no different to what we have done as a principle with other commercial drone users. Commercial drone users have to comply with the same rules and regulations as everybody else, consumer users or anybody but they can come to us and say, “We’d like to do something different beyond the base regulation if you like.” And our answer to that is, OK, how are you going to do that and maintain the same level of safety as the base regulations deliver. So if somebody can show to us that they are delivering the same level of safety as the base regulations we can give them an exemption to do what they want to do. And we’ve done this on quite a few occasions for other commercial drone users and for things like the emergency services, as well. There are quite a few commercial drone photography and filming companies that are allowed to go closer to buildings and people than the base regulations because they have shown us how they will do that safely. For example, they might cordon off the area, they might have security personnel around the edge of the filming unit, keeping people out, things like that. Things like the fire brigade say we want to fly inside a building let alone 50m away from it and we say that’s absolutely fine that you want to do that. There’s not going to be anybody in the building, or if there is in the building a drone coming in is going to be the least of their worries. It’s an exemption from the rules but only because we can be satisfied they’re meeting the same level of safety that the original rules deliver.
DP: Can you confirm whether the field that it has been reported that Amazon is testing in is indeed their testing site?
JN: You’d have to ask Amazon that. We’ve given them an exemption as to what they can do. The exact location I think is up to them and the times that they run are up to them. We’re interested in what they can develop because obviously the technology doesn’t exist to be able to do their ultimate aim. Their ultimate aim and the technology might actually enable other exciting things to happen, for example, the movement of organ transplants from hospital to hospital by drone. If you can develop sense and avoid technology and how it would integrate with airspace users, and do that safely then potentially that opens up to a number of very worthy other uses as well.
DP: Can you confirm that they’re testing autonomous flight?
JN: They have an exemption to be able to fly beyond line of sight and to be able to have one person operating more than one drone. As I say, in very controlled circumstances, within a very specific area and a very specific environment.
DP: The drones in the air require an operator?
JN: Yes, absolutely, yes, but an operator could be flying more than one.
DP: Is there a limit to the number that they could fly?
JN: I don’t know. I think they only have a limited number of drones anyway. This is a test in a, as you indicated, a small area. We’re not talking about large numbers of drones flying long distances beyond the line of sight. It is very, very controlled, in a small area.
DP: With the permission to test the technology, people might assume they are more likely to be given permission to deploy the technology in a year or two when it is fully developed. Do you have a policy for drones that don’t have operators?
JN: No, because really the technology to integrate them into the airspace system doesn’t exist. When people have got the technology and the ability to do things they obviously can come to us and ask if that is possible. And then that’s when that can be looked at. There’s a lot more obviously than just aviation safety to factor in here as well. Other government bodies, such as Home Office, and parts of Transport would obviously have to be involved in that kind of decision and probably at a higher level than us. So we can look at it from an aviation safety perspective but as I say the ability for that to happen doesn’t exist yet anyway, so we can’t have a policy on something that we don’t know what we’re having a policy on. If people can’t demonstrate to us what they want to do then we can’t have a policy on it.
DP: Is it correct to say the CAA doesn’t have a policy on autonomous flight in that case?
JN: We have no policy on lots of things that don’t exist. As technology in any form of aviation develops and things are made that didn’t exist before, we develop policy on how they can happen, if they can happen. Until we are presented with something, it’s difficult to come up with a policy on it.
DP: Are other providers testing similar technology in the UK?
JN: I don’t know, is the simple answer. Certainly if people come to us for exemptions, we would look at them in the same way as we would look at any other. Amazon were treated no differently to any other organisation. If people come to us we will judge each one on its merits. We don’t actively promote them, they’re commercially in confidence. Amazon chose to talk about its one, which is fine. We can’t proactive talk about other people, what other commercial organisations are doing, that’s for them to choose whether they want to or not.
DP: And at the moment everything is in the 150-feet to 400-feet airspace?
JN: Yes, so 400 feet is our guidance. The actual rules say not beyond your line of sight, unless you have specific exemptions to do otherwise. There are some first person view operators who have a spotter with them. They’re operating beyond the line of sight of the operator because they’re looking in goggles but have a spotter. We were doing some flying the other day and took a drone up to 400 feet and I don’t think I could safely fly it above that if I was flying by line of sight. It was starting to get very small and I don’t think I can have a very good perspective about other things that might be flying and where they were in relation to my drone beyond that. Certainly we say 400 feet is where we think the limit is and beyond, line of sight law kicks in.
DP: Is it possible that a segment of the 150-feet to 400-feet space could get cut out for commercial use?
JN: There are other things in that airspace. It’s not just drones. I know Amazon Prime Air have spoken about having 200-feet to 400-feet for commercial, high-level, high-tech drones. But there are a lot of other things in that airspace as well so they’d need to work out how, and that’s why I come back to the tests are to see if it’s possible to develop technology to enable that kind of thing to happen. The technology doesn’t exist at the moment. Within that piece of airspace you have helicopters, med-evac helicopters, light aircraft, balloons, hang-gliders, fast military jets, kites, et cetera et cetera and you need to work out how safely you make that happen. And at the moment the technology doesn’t exist for that to happen hence why Amazon are doing tests.
DP: Equally speculatively, could things operate at a higher level over 400 feet?
JN: Yeah, it’s the same situation. It doesn’t matter on the height, the same situation exists, how do you ensure that that can happen safely with all the other things in the airspace. It’s not just the height. The only way you could do something like that at the moment is if you shut the airspace to all other airspace users.
DP: Does the CAA have a vision of the future of the drone industry?
JN: That’s really for the industry to decide. We don’t necessarily have a vision on aviation or aspects of aviation. As the regulator, it’s our job to make sure it happens safely. For example, EasyJet, we didn’t say to Stelios, “Go and make a low cost airline.” Stelios, as an entrepreneur made a low cost airline and came to us to get the approvals, the permissions and operate. It’s for the drone industry, drone operators to map their future, if you like. It’s for us to make sure that future is safe and that that future integrates with what’s also operating in our airspace.
DP: Is there anything we haven’t covered or anything that we’ve touched upon that you’d like to expand upon?
JN: Just quickly, let us give you the twenty seconds on the education work. We’re just finishing off probably the first piece of proper consumer research on consumer drone users, who they are, what they think, that kind of stuff. We’ll publish that in September. We are redoing the Dronecode, the safety advice, to make it much simpler and easier, to help explain things like, people say, “What the hell is 400 feet? What does that look like?” So hopefully be able to answer some of the things like that, make it much more like a ‘Stop, Look, Listen’ kind of thing, make it easy to get into people’s heads. Obviously, as I said working with manufacturers, resellers and increasing the level of information that’s available to people. We’re looking at potentially doing some work with schools, to get drones into schools into science lessons, into STEM work. At the same time, to really impart the safety messages to the students when they’re perhaps building a drone kit. So some exciting stuff that we’re working on over the next few months, all with the aim of getting back to your first point about the average person buying a drone doesn’t necessarily know what the rules and what their responsibilities are, so just trying to get to that point where we’re increasing that person’s knowledge.
Lead image: Capricorn4049
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