Making it official

By on 22 May, 2019

This article was originally published in issue 98 of Position magazine. An article on regulatory changes for RPAs in Australia will feature in the upcoming issue.

The blistering pace of change in the UAV sector is a blessing and a curse, depending on where you stand.

The whirlwind rise of the industry has been driven by the rate of development which has allowed such capable, user-friendly aircraft to be brought to market so affordably. Regulators have trailed in the wake of this phenomenon: the bureaucratic processes of governmental bodies are no match for the turbocharged maturation of technology fuelled by a $127 billion market.

These circumstances are certainly not unique to this industry — the plodding, procedural lifecycle of legislation cannot possibly keep up with tech-driven market trends across a range of economic sectors. This can present seemingly wild swings in approach, or perceived discrepancies in consistency from regulators, and mixed results in terms of policy and regulatory output. But in the dynamic world of drones, there is an industry-specific spectre that has loomed over the industry from day one: the potential for conflict with manned aviation.

In the preceding articles in this series, we covered the background to law and licensing for operating remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) in Australia, and the process of attaining an RePL in detail — a certification that we recommend as the minimum standard for operating an unmanned aircraft of any size.

In this article, we’ll examine the next stage of certification, the RPA operators certificate (ReOC) — what this ticket enables, how the process has changed over time, and some considerations when deciding whether this is the route to take for your professional practice.

Ticket to fly

Under Australian air law, licensed pilots must fly under a ReOC, the certification that an organisation has a nominated Chief Remote Pilot (CRP), and an approved, documented set of procedures and policies for operating and maintaining RPAS. The introduction of a new pathway known as the ‘excluded’ category of operations in 2016 meant that training and licensing is not required to operate an RPA under certain conditions, which we’ll get to later.

The ReOC holder has responsibility for all licensed pilots and aircraft that operate under the authority of their operating certificate, and the aircraft must conform to the aircraft categories, weight class and operation profiles specified.

The highest standard of certification for unmanned aircraft operation, ReOCs are issued in a series of aircraft-specific categories: multirotor, aeroplane, helicopter, powered lift and airship and ‘other’, with an assigned weight category for the aircraft it applies to. The weight will be typically for aircraft up to 25 kilograms, with the certificate noting manufacturer and weight if over this threshold.

Once certified, ReOC holders and their pilots are then eligible for a broad range of privileges in terms of day-to-day operations, both directly and indirectly. In terms of direct privileges, CASA routinely grants exemptions to the standard operating conditions governing unmanned flight, which greatly aids operational flexibility such as operating ceilings or access to zones that may not be permissible to those flying without a license. Indirectly, insurance premiums are likely to be much more affordable, and statutory bodies and other landholders may be substantially more inclined to permit operations on their property or vicinity.

Applying for a ReOC is a streamlined affair in late 2018. The key improvement to this process since its introduction is CASA’s publication of content-rich templates for the operational procedures and operations manual. These two documents form the core of the application, and historically were required to be written from scratch by applicants as evidence of the integration of RPAS operations into the business operations of an organisation, even ahead of the granting of a certificate, with little guidance on the requirements of these pivotal documents.

The availability of these resources now means that the considerable bulk of material can now be submitted verbatim, and modifications required for intended operations and aircraft can simply be made to these documents. At around 60 pages of structured content, it’s difficult to understate the easing of the application process that this represents — consider the time it would cost yourself or a professional employee to create that from scratch, considering that a number of attempts may be required to draft them to the required specification.

The process seems to have been streamlined on CASA’s end too, dropping the application fee accordingly. CASA charges $130 per hour for application processing, so the fee is dependent on the complexity of an applicant’s submission, but a CASA source has indicated to Position that the fee is usually less than $1000 per application on average, so it’s no longer a considerable outlay to apply for your operator’s certificate.

According to Mike Manning, CRP for Townsville-based FlyFreely, this represents a world of difference from the former process. A surveyor and spatial scientist since the 1980s, Manning became involved in the nascent Australian RPAS industry around 2012, soon after the initial regulatory framework was introduced.  Manning undertook his licensing before there was a CASA-mandated syllabus and training courses — three weeks of aviation theory, and a host of manufacturer-specific training for their RPAs.

Industry adapts

FlyFreely are an organisation taking a novel approach to the particulars of Australian RPAS regulation. Perhaps due to the comparatively complex and dear process of applying for a ReOC in the past, and the requirement for licensed pilots to fly under the authority of such a certificate, ReOC holders began essentially ‘hiring’ out their privileges — charging licenced freelance contractors to allow them to fly under their certificate.

This is an entirely legal practice under CASA’s regulations, which state that all pilots must be inducted via the procedures set out in the company’s operating manual, with that responsibility resting entirely on the ReOC holder and pilots. According to Manning, without enforcement and oversight of these requirement, many operators engaging in this practice had loosely defined on-boarding procedures that led to a lot of risk on operations.

“So to allow people to operate under your ReOC, you need to be really confident in their certification, their training their operational procedures their diligence in operations. That they are going to fly professionally, legally, safely,” he said.

“I think a lot of the companies that were doing it really didn’t understand the risks involved with that setup: I mean you are exposing your ReOC, the chief pilot is at risk.”

FlyFreely prides itself on a rigorous set of processes for new pilots and aircraft joining their fleet. New pilots undergo flight assessments, air law knowledge tests, aircraft inspections and registration along with mission plans and operating sites approved by Manning. Logged hours are confirmed, AROCs (Aeronautical Radio Operator’s Certificate) reviewed, and professional indemnity insurance is also required to enrol.

“Once they’ve done all that, I’ll actually assess them out in the field,” he said.

“They need to show me how they will operate on that job and that goes from how they set up their safety barrier, to how they are setting up their radios, to: can they actually make a radio call? Are they competent in their actual skills in flying the drone, are they safe, responsible?”

Mike Manning of FlyFreely training the SM from SM Waypoint, a company focusing on commercial remote sensing in Cambodia.

Once assessed, approved and registered, pilots’ missions are requested, approved and supervised by Manning via FlyFreely’s app, in which he tracks aircraft movements, pre- and post- flight checklists and flight logs of the completed operations against the approved mission plans.

The regime that FlyFreely has in place goes well beyond CASA’s requirements, but makes business sense for a company that has made establishing a fleet of pilots and aircraft a core part of its model — a model predicated on the privileges conferred by a ReOC.

Double standards

In 2016, CASA introduced the ‘excluded’ category of RPA operations, essentially a new set of rules for aircraft meeting certain criteria. Whilst the basic guidelines for RPAS operation are the same for those operating in the ‘included’ category, drone owners are allowed to operate freely — for recreational or commercial purposes — without a license or ReOC.

The most commonly-utilised and contentious of these criteria is for flying drones under two kilograms in weight, but under certain circumstances, drones weighing up to 25 kilograms can be flown without a license in public areas in the excluded category, and drones of up to 150 kilograms can be flown by operators if on their own property. A 150-kilogram drone is a lot of aircraft, when you consider that a drone of under a kilogram could potentially bring down a helicopter if it made contact with its tail rotor, and that a sub-two kilogram Phantom caused structural damage to a light plane’s wing spar in a test collision carried out by impact physicists at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

A DJI Phantom quadcopter impacting with a light aircraft wing during an impact test.

Manning sees great risk in the largely de-regulated space of the excluded category, and says that he has witnessed an increase in reckless flying and rogue operators taking advantage its parameters. He says he knows of cases in which certified operators with fleets of pilots and aircraft are now also employing unlicensed operators to maintain competitiveness.

“There are two parallel streams running in Australia right now. On the one side you have zero requirements and then on the other side, quite high standards and requirements. Every single day in this country thousands of people using that excluded category either illegally or dangerously — and as a result, it’s also sucked down the included [category] people with them,” he said.

“What we are seeing in the industry now started about a year before the [excluded] regulations came out in 2016. So that’s three years now, and what we’re seeing in Australia is a massive decline in professionalism out there in our industry.”

Responding to questions from Position, CASA stated that the introduction of the excluded category was a response to the rapid increases in RPA technology, and an effort to remove red tape for a category of drone owners that is sees as relatively low risk.

‘With the rapid advances in RPA technology, RPA have become more readily available and easier to use.  CASA recognised that the operation of RPA below two kilograms and within defined operating parameters posed limited risks.  Accordingly, to reduce red tape for these low-risk operations, CASA introduced the excluded RPA category and the standard operating conditions under which operators of excluded RPA must operate,’ a spokesperson said.

Fork in the road

What these divergent categories do is present a dilemma to those looking to conduct unmanned aerial work. Capabilities are ever-improving, and the release of DJI’s Phantom 4 RTK has seen real centimetre-level positioning in a sub-two kilogram aircraft aimed at professional mapping, scanning and surveying operations.

The de-regulated space of the excluded category offers a tantalising prospect in terms of a lower initial outlay and investment — buy a Phantom or Mavic off the shelf and start flying, no need to train staff or integrate a new set of procedures into your organisation. Procedural requirements are more relaxed too — CASA may conduct ad-hoc surveillance of excluded operators, but they are not subject to the same periodic reviews and audits of ReOC holders and licensed RPAS pilots.

Excluded operators carry their own risk, which is no doubt an appealing idea to many businesses looking to offer unmanned services, or reap the cost benefits of replacing heavy-duty manned process with semi-automated, less hazardous drone inspections: a case to senior management to support a decision is strengthened by a lower initial outlay.

In May 2018, CASA’s Review of aviation safety regulation of RPAS report noted that the authority supports mandatory registration for drones over 250 grams, and a simplified online course be developed for recreational and excluded operators on safe operation, with a quiz and minimum pass mark.

Manning’s view on this echoes my own experience of undertaking the RePL licensing course — for individuals without a background in aviation, the new awareness of the legal and operational environment you are entering in is invaluable, and the risks to life and property of ignorant RPA operation numerous and very real. Businesses considering the trade-off may do well to think through the consequences that an incident involving bodily harm to bystanders, conflict with manned aviation or significant damage to property might to their brand and client base. Whilst CASA hold individuals operating in the excluded category responsible for their actions, police and the judiciary may take a different view in the event of a dispute of responsibility for an operation, a scenario currently without precedent in Australian courts. Fundamentally, an unlicensed operator flying a drone without the knowledge and flight training of the RePL course is a far, far riskier proposition than a licensed pilot. Firms with licensed pilots can grant themselves a level of autonomy and flexibility not available to those flying excluded by attaining their RPA operator’s certificate.

“I do not agree with the excluded category at all. So I would advise anybody do not take that route and go get your people properly trained properly insured,” Manning said.

“Then you can rest comfortably that they are going to do things professionally, not break any rules that you have minimised those risks to the public as best you can.”

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