SkyTech: Drone industry takes pains to be better

Fear of Daily Mail headlines means the UAV industry wants to improve

The drone industry is booming; in the US, the FAA’s drone registration site has seen 300,000 signees in just 30 days. But as great as that might be, it doesn’t come without problems. That’s 300,000 largely untrained, unregulated and unaccountable flying machines, all potential accidents in waiting.

“There’s been huge exponential growth in the last 12 months,” Siôn Roberts, Head of Academy at the RUSTA UAV training school, said this week at the 2016 SkyTech event in London. “With growth comes a spike in incidents. The Daily Mail are waiting for it, and it could set the industry back years.”

In the UK, the number of training schools has jumped from two to 14 in 12 months while the number of pilots certified by the CAA has rocketed from just 190 to over 1300. But the number of incidents had increased fourfold over the last year to just over 80, the most notorious being a little girl who was blinded in one eye by an unqualified hobbyist.

Roberts says the big challenge with training revolves around a lack of standards. This includes a lack of universal UAV qualifications: each flight school offers a slightly different course. No initial requirements to be a pilot: no age or health restrictions. And a lack of monitoring standards: no “OfDrone” to be the industry’s Ofsted. He says these will come in time, but for now the majority of incidents are caused by “a lack of understanding” and better education will lead to fewer accidents.

John Tansley, Director of No Fly Zone UK, a registry of homeowners who don’t want drones flying over their property, believes there is “potential” for the public wariness and over-regulation to overtake the business advantage if the industry isn’t careful. The former navy officer and police officer believes there is a “very real threat” from drones carrying explosives and predicts an increase the use of UAVs in crime - whether scoping targets, hijacking GPS, direct attacks or smuggling - is undoubtedly going to occur.

Throughout the event, there were calls for better enforcement from police and tougher penalties for those who flout the current rules and more efforts to raise public awareness on the benefits, rather than shock headlines. While drone detection and deterrent systems were discussed, they are currently too expensive, impractical or have questions over legality.

Education, culture and standards

Tracey Lambe, RPAS Safety Manager at risk assessment firm SGS, likened the drone industry today to the early days of mass produced cars: Largely unregulated and full of accidents.

She said that despite being filled with the cream of the cream, Top Gun-types, the accident rate of military drone use (there aren’t equivalent stats for civilians) is 300% higher than regular aviation, and warns that this will be much higher for the wider public. For context, RUSTA’s CAA-approved basic UAV course is just 2.5 days long, while commercial pilot training can last up to several years.

However, while some 60% of military RPAS accidents are due to human factors, Lambe felt that “automation on its own will not reduce accidents”. Referring to research on commercial aviation, she said automation changes pilot culture and makes them complacent.

She added there was a difference in safety culture that also needed to be addressed. “RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft System – a more traditional term for drones] pilots are frightened and don’t to want to report anything.” Where manned aviation is focused on making everything better and safer and has a culture that flags even the smallest sign of something unusual, Lambe suggested UAV pilots fail to do this, which can lead to incidents.

The industry is, however, taking safety seriously and making an effort to be better. Although the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] has published guidance on future drone regulation, there is still a disparity between member states. Ireland and Germany have both issued new rules in the wake of EASAs guidance but Roberts believes EU wide standards “will definitely happen, the question is how long it will take”. He predicts 2018 is when we’ll see such more unification.

The new EASA rules were discussed in multiple sessions, with many saying the rules don’t go far enough or don’t address the right issues, and highlighted what needs to be considered in future drafts.

Neil Williams, Head of Operations, Unmanned Aviation Services at Resources Group, claimed the rules - especially around the lighter Open Category - may end up helping “proliferate incompetent and ignorant pilots”, and that weight categorisation shouldn’t matter: “a micro drone can be a danger in the hands of someone with malicious intent”.

SGS’s Lambe suggested that although proposed rules claim to take a “risk-based” look at drones, they are incomplete. “We are looking at very limited ideas of risk that give a false sense of security.”

She suggested the rules - which currently focus on the size, energy and distance flown - don't consider the low probability, high consequence events such as a drone taking out a plane engine when it is already an engine down. She says risk needs to include considerations around who is piloting, where, and when. And this should include context around events.