It is not just the argument over calling them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS). It is the very real possibility of this fast-evolving and heavy-in-demand business falling on the horns of indecision and flawed policy (or rather the lack of it) and failing to take off.
The fact that USA’s FAA is yet to come out with a definitive policy on the use of UAVs for surveying is a serious cause for concern. UK has directives that only permit flight below 400 ft from the surface and that the UAV should weigh less than 20 kg, Australia has directives that permit UAV flight above 400 feet from the ground surface, there is a total ban on UAVs in South Africa, and most other nations are yet to even think about this issue.
The European Commission in its communication to the European Parliament states, “Safety is the paramount objective of EU aviation policy. The current regulatory system for remotely piloted airborne systems (RPAS) based on fragmented rules for ad hoc operational authorisations is an administrative bottleneck and hampers the development of the European RPAS market. National authorisations do not benefit from mutual recognition and do not allow for Europe-wide activities, either to produce or to operate RPAS.”
The tabled report, however, does not categorically list the process and procedure of bringing RPAS under the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). It is rather surprising that concerns about third-party liability and insurance have not been addressed since the current third-party insurance regime has been established in terms of manned aircraft, where mass (starting from 500 kg) determines the minimum amount of insurance. Since many RPAS weigh much below this 500 kg threshold, the European Commission will assess the need to amend the current rules for RPAS specificities and the way to promote the development of an efficient insurance market where fees correspond to the real financial risk estimated on the basis of acquired evidence through incidents and accident reporting, says this report. In India, as the regulations clamp down, RC airplane and multirotor flying enthusiasts are having a hard time. The very definition of what is to be classified a ‘drone’ and the legal ramifications of such are being discussed.
The concerns of the aviation regulators like FAA from around the world too cannot be underplayed. It would not be wrong to say that if stringent regulations are not in place, aircraft crashes due to collisions with flying drones (toys or otherwise) are sure to follow. The latest notice issued by FAA not only reiterates its position that the definition of ‘model aircraft’ requires that the flying be only for recreation, the agency now also asserts that the operator must be looking directly at the model in flight, not piloting it with video goggles or other high-tech vision aids. This logically means that flying a video-camera-equipped model airplane or ‘copter using, say, an iPad screen or a video monitor of any type makes it no longer fit the FAA’s definition of a model aircraft. Till now FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems), according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. Loose cannons like allowing hobbyists to fly their creations and defining ‘hobby’ is a ‘pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation’ leaves loopholes for exploitation.
As the present focus is the synergy between UAS and all things geospatial, the focus shifts to the likes of the manufacturers of X100 from Trimble, SIRIUS PRO from Topcon, the Q-Pod from QuestUAV, etc. They cost way more than the RC hobby airplanes and quadcopters and deliver photogrammetric quality data. They also have flight times much more than the 15-20 minutes that the RC hobby aircraft are capable of. Any UAV or drone used for mapping or surveying will, by virtue of the task at hand, necessarily have to fly on a pre-planned path; not so with the RC hobby toys. The accidents and close misses reported due to UAVs (in peace time and civilian spaces) are almost all from the unregulated RC hobbyists. There is now an urgent need for formal and strict definitions to distinguish between a flying toy and a ‘UAV on a civilian mapping mission.’ Else, a feasible, viable and technologically advanced form of geospatial data gathering may face serious roadblocks.