Tag Archives: CAA

Crucial unanswered questions remain in Amazon’s pre-Christmas UK drone delivery announcement

The fanfare announcement by Amazon that they have recently made their first successful delivery by drone to a customer in the UK, whilst it provided valuable pre-Christmas publicity for Amazon and its Prime Air delivery service, should not be allowed to hide some serious issues concerning the overall viability of large scale drone deliveries and the public acceptance factor of such delivery services.

Amazon claim that this first delivery was achieved within 30 minutes from the purchaser’s click to the package being delivered at their home. A heavily choreographed positive-message video was released showing the delivery being made. Even with this carefully scripted video however it was possible to see obvious pointers to the thorny issues that are likely to be prevalent where drones are used as delivery vehicles. For much of 2016 Amazon have been conducting drone delivery research from an isolated rural location near Cambridge, and the video of the delivery being made on December 7th highlights the rural nature of the general locality, but also contains footage of the drone flying over houses and following the route of a road below it.

Whilst Amazon for the purposes of their Cambridge research have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones beyond line of sight of the drone operator, and given the law on trespass and nuisance in respect to aircraft in the UK, it would prove challenging for anyone to bring a successful legal action against Amazon, the fact remains that some people, perhaps many, will not be happy having the airspace above their homes used as a road in the sky. Furthermore, there are safety concerns, including how distracting it may be for drivers to have autonomous drones flying above and across roads? If distraction accidents occur who will be legally responsible? Such issues need addressing, but unfortunately with Amazon’s beyond line of sight drone delivery programme there appears a void.

The Cambridge drone research programme had already earlier in the year attracted some significant criticism from a local group of conservation volunteers, the Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, who voiced strong concerns over the impact of drone activity on wildlife and the tranquillity of the area they work to preserve. The voluntary group only became aware of Amazon’s drone delivery programme when they were approached by the media for their comments on the programme.

The Civil Aviation Authority have following an FOI request recently published on their website the email correspondence between themselves and Amazon, going back over two years to 2014 when Amazon first approached the CAA about the possibility of conducting drone delivery research in the UK. Included within that email correspondence is a very telling email dated the 28th July 2014 from an Amazon employee to the CAA, which states that if Amazon do decide to start testing in the UK (which of course they subsequently were allowed to do), that they would discuss further with the CAA how to tackle the issue of public perception.

Unfortunately, other than a somewhat belated invitation to some local Cambridge schoolchildren to visit the Amazon laboratory in Cambridge, there appears to have been no obvious attempt to engage with the wider Cambridge public on the use of drones for delivery purposes, and it may be asked that if Amazon truly envisage drone deliveries to be a viable commercial proposition, whether they have actually taken the view that so long as they are seen as acting within the law, then public perceptions can be left to others to address. If this is the case, then this attitude points to an arrogant corporatist approach, and it does great dis-service to the drone industry as a whole, in which many have been working to engage with the wider public to highlight the value for society of drone technology.

 

Are the dangers from drones for manned aircraft exaggerated, and should we be more concerned with other dangers such as lasers?

The latest UK Airprox Board investigations into aircraft near misses in UK airspace have again contained a number of cases involving drones, which continues to highlight the major concern surrounding drones to the safety of manned aircraft.

With the addition of these latest Airprox Board investigations there have been a total of 28 reported near misses between drones and manned aircraft for 2015. Of these 28 near misses 13 were rated by the investigators as Category A incidents, the highest level of risk category. To put these 28 near misses into context, the Airprox Board have in their near miss investigations for 2015 reviewed a total of 197 cases involving all aircraft. In all of the 28 drone related cases, the drone pilot could not be identified, and therefore not a single prosecution has been brought relating to these incidents.

Outside of the identified near miss situations, the Civil Aviation Authority and the regional Police forces in the UK have been receiving increasing numbers of drone related complaints. However, further highlighting the challenges involved in identifying those flying drones where they are being misused, there were only 3 reported convictions of drone pilots in 2015 in the UK.

In the United States, the aviation regulatory body, the FAA, have been reporting hundreds of near misses between drones and manned aircraft per month, heightening the overall fears surrounding drone activity in the U.S. The extent of the problem has however been challenged by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who in analysing the data produced by the FAA, believe that the true number of actual near misses is far smaller, with the bulk of the cases actually being reports of sightings of drones in general, unrelated to near miss situations.

A central fear surrounding drones flying in proximity to manned aircraft are that they may be sucked into a plane’s engine leading in a worst case scenario to the plane being brought down. Of course the natural phenomenon of birds flying in conflict with aircrafts has always been a safety concern. New research carried out by Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond at the George Mason University has via their investigation of the official data of bird strikes on planes in U.S. airspace sought to provide a statistical analysis of the potential level of risk posed by drones weighing up to 2 kg have for manned aircraft. Whilst the researchers recognised that their work in using bird strikes on aircraft does obviously have some potential weaknesses, such as the composition of birds in contrast to drones, they found that within the parameters of their study there was given the 1 million drones being flown in the United States, a likelihood of a damaging drone strike on a manned aircraft occurring no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg drone flight time. Furthermore, they estimated that where a collision occurs, actual injury or death to someone aboard the manned aircraft would happen once every 187 million years of operation. This they concluded was an acceptable level of risk.

If Dourado and Hammond are correct, and of course there needs to be definitive research carried out utilising simulated situations where drones are flown into aircraft engines in order to further help in such an assessment, then as regards the safety of manned aircraft, at present it might be argued that a greater potential hazard which appears far less reported on than drones, has been the proliferation of laser pen shining incidents, where powerful laser beams have been shone onto aircraft, potentially blinding pilots. The official data from the CAA shows that for 2015, up to the end of September 2015, there were a total of 882 reported laser incidents.

As regards the regulatory criteria, Air Navigation Order (ANO) Article 222 provides that a person must not shine a light on an aircraft in flight that may dazzle or distract the pilot. Added to this Article, ANO Article 137 further provides that a person must not recklessly endanger an aircraft. In October 2015, a Cardiff man was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for shining a green laser at 3 aircraft and a police helicopter that endangered the aircraft. The following month in November, a British Airways pilot had his retina damaged when a laser was shone at him whilst landing his plane at Heathrow. The General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, Jim McAuslan, has called for laser pens to be reclassified as offensive weapons.

Lasers of course are used in many ways, and it has been reported that the United States are developing a drone weapon that will possess a laser powerful enough to shoot down missiles. Previous attempts by the U.S. military to develop such a weapon for use via a manned aircraft ended in failure.

However, the notion of incorporating a laser within the payload of a drone raises the serious question of how long it may be before we hear reports of lasers being shone at civil aircraft from drones? The linkage of lasers and drones would appear to significantly raise the potential overall threat level to manned aircraft. There can be no doubt that it takes limited technical skill to attach a workable laser to a drone as can be easily seen on YouTube.

Globally, regulators are still struggling to get to grips with how to effectively control drone misuse. The identification of drones and their pilots is a paramount requirement for effective enforcement, but when we add potential malicious use such as lasers via a drone platform, effective means of identification of those who will of course not wish to be identified becomes even more challenging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drone photojournalist arrest highlights urgent need to improve drone regulatory rules

The arrest this week of a Civil Aviation Authority authorised commercial drone user, photojournalist Eddie Mitchell by Surrey Police, highlights the ongoing weaknesses and vagaries that are present in the regulatory structure for drone users in the UK at present.

With concerns over the rapid growth in drone users, especially with drones expected to be a must have present at Christmas, I understand various police forces in the UK have issued guidance to their officers on the range of offences that could be committed from drone use that would enable police officers to carry out an arrest and potentially seek a prosecution, one of these offences being a breach of the peace. What the police authorities have failed to do so far however, is to appropriately train their officers on drone use and how they should handle situations where drones are being flown. The initial report of Mr Mitchell’s arrest by Surrey Police in the Guardian for potential breach of the peace highlighted that Mr Mitchell’s flying of the drone was close to Gatwick airport, suggesting his arrest was related in some way to endangering aircraft. This appears incorrect as Mr Mitchell was using his drone equipment close to a caravan site where there had been a fatal fire. The site is used by travellers and the breach of the peace alleged by the police seems more likely to relate to the possible reaction by those present at the caravan site to the drone flying overhead. From the photographs published of the arrest, it seems Surrey police made a rather ham fisted attempt at arresting Mr Mitchell whilst his drone was still in the air. Untrained in the flying of drones they appear to have snatched the control box resulting in the drone ultimately crashing to the ground, potentially of course risking injuries.

drone Picture by Darren Cool

Peter Lee in his blog Drones and the Law, suggests that the CAA may have to start issuing ID cards for those they have authorised to fly drones commercially to avoid potential misunderstandings. But clearly even where the police are aware that a person is a bona fide commercial drone operator and they wish that person to cease their flying they must know how to handle the situation appropriately, within designated laid down procedures.

On a wider note as a matter of some urgency non commercial drone users must be made aware of the rules by which they must abide by when flying drones. At the recent House of Lords Select Committee enquiry into drones there has been discussion about requiring manufacturers to place guidance material in the boxes containing the drone when they are sold. I would suggest that actually this will not be sufficient and a far wider publicity campaign will be needed.

Drone Predictions for 2015

We are now entering the prediction season, but predictions do of course have that nasty habit of being wrong! But in the name of tradition lets have a go at predicting a few of the things that 2015 might bring for drones.

There are two things that I am reasonably confident in predicting: firstly, we are likely to see growing numbers of drone related stories in the media – in the last few months there have been a marked increase in drone stories. It is widely reported that drones are one of the must have presents for Christmas, so come Christmas Day a whole new generation of drone flyers will take to the air (and back down again!) and no doubt this will lead to a plethora of stories for the media to relay. My second confident prediction is that the media will continue to call them drones. Whilst the acronyms RPAS and UAV are being used widely in official circles, they simply do not have the attention power of the word drone.

When it comes to predicting the developing uses of drones with some predictions we are on pretty safe ground as usage in certain areas is already well on the way to being commonplace. 2014 witnessed some stunning photographic and film uses made of drone technology and these areas will undoubtedly continue to develop, providing us with unique visual experiences.

One area where there was much talk in 2014 of possible widespread drone activity was that of delivery. Amazon amongst others have been carrying out experiments on delivery systems, but I remain to be convinced that 2015 will witness widescale drone delivery usage. famous last words). This is for a number of reasons – there is some way to go before the technology itself is ready for such a role, both in terms of actually delivering goods and the technical/safety issues surrounding drone flights. As well as these matters there is also the issues of regulatory and acceptance concerns. Deliveries such as emergency medical supplies would be a natural beneficiary of drone technology, but the much talked about pizza deliveries is an entirely different matter.

As regards regulation, in the UK the lead regulatory body the CAA can be seen to be ahead of the game in seeking to provide a working environment by which drone usage can be facilitated. The U.S. regulatory body the FAA in contrast has been heavily criticised for its pedestrian pace of addressing key issues to create a workable framework. The whole area of regulation and public acceptance is likely to be a major issue in 2015.

If we consider other users, the police no doubt will continue to work on their use of drones, as will other public bodies such as the fire and rescue service. One of the very promising areas that are likely to benefit from greater use of drone technology is the agricultural sector. Already farmers are using drones, but this is likely to be just the beginning, with great opportunities in crop and livestock management. Researchers in different fields are likely to identify innovative uses for drone technology. Could selfie pictures give way to Dronie pictures in 2015? One area that I have not heard mentioned so far for drone use is the Art world – so maybe we will have Drone Art in 2015.

Perhaps the biggest question however for next year will be whether by Christmas 2015 Father Christmas will have given up on his sleigh and will be using a drone instead???!!!

First UK Drone conviction

The first ever conviction for flying a drone in the UK has been widely reported in the media this week. Robert Knowles from Barrow in Furness was on Tuesday found guilty of two offences relating to his flying of a drone aircraft.

The first charge for flying a small unmanned surveillance aircraft within 50 metres of a structure contrary to Article 167 of the Air Navigation Order 2009. The video footage clearly showed his drone narrowly missing a busy bridge. The second charge was for flying over a nuclear installation contrary to Regulation 3(2) of the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Nuclear Installations) Regulations 2007.

Mr Knowles was fined £800 by Furness and District Magistrates, and costs were awarded to the Civil Aviation Authority who brought the case of £3500.

The conviction of Mr Knowles, who is a keen amateur drone enthusiast, came about when the drone he had been flying was found in water near to a submarine testing facility run by BAE Systems. Subsequent analysis of the video footage shot by the drone’s camera, identified Mr Knowles through his car number plate, and that the drone had flown contrary to the regulations Mr Knowles was charged with.

If Mr Knowles had not lost control of his drone then nobody would have been any the wiser even if he were violating the regulations, and he wouldn’t now be £4300 out of pocket. Mr Knowles in comments he has posted on his local newspaper website claims that he was a mile and a half from the restricted nuclear facility, and he simply lost control of the drone. Another poster on the same website made the interesting observation that where Mr Knowles was flying his drone is a popular location for drone enthusiasts, and there is the risk that the radio frequency they use runs the risk of them interfering with each others ability to control their aircraft.

So there appears a clear risk for all drone enthusiasts that even if they are flying inside the applicable regulatory requirements, they could lose control of their aircraft and find themselves in serious trouble with the CAA.

As I have written elsewhere, there must also be the risk of malicious hacking of a drones control system, and in such a situation Mr Knowles could be just an innocent victim.

Prior to Mr Knowles conviction a Lancastrian photographer, Lawrence Clift, who used his drone to film a school fire and subsequently sold the footage to the media, received a Civil Aviation Authority caution for not having authority from the CAA to make commercial flights, and selling the footage made his flying of the drone commercial. (Update 30th January 2015 – Mr Clift has emailed me to say that he now has all the necessary accreditation from the CAA to undertake commercial drone flights).

No doubt the next drone story that hits the media is probably all ready for take-off!