This article is the second in a series on certification for commercial RPAS operation in Australia, in which we cover the process of attaining your remote pilot’s licence (RePL). It originally appeared in the August/September issue of Position magazine, and the series will conclude in the December/January issue.
It’s a beautifully clear winter’s day in south-western Sydney.
We’re in a Robinson R44 helicopter, scything along at around 200 kilometres an hour, rolling to starboard as we approach Sydney Olympic Park at around 1000 feet (305 metres) above ground level.
Visibility is perfect, and the cool temperatures are giving the R44’s air-cooled boxer engine and rotors plenty of lush dense air – and lift – to work with.
Uniform blocks of bungalows glide quickly by beneath us, occasionally broken by green reserves and sprawling light industrial precincts, details razor-sharp through flawless plexiglass.
“Can you see that?” the pilot asks me, pointing at a glinting silver speck slipping past the chopper’s fishbowl canopy, into and out of my peripheral vision in about half a second.
It was a twin-engined Cessna, descending for a touch-and-go at Bankstown Airport at around half our altitude, a few hundred metres away from the Robinson.
A glinting silver speck.
At the moment I caught a glimpse of it, the Cessna was operating at approximately the legal ceiling for drones in many zones of Sydney metropolitan airspace, while we were flying at around double the minimum altitude for manned aviation in those same zones.
The helicopter flight is part of the Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL) syllabus run by Flightcontroller, based out of Bankstown Helicopters in Sydney’s south-west. It’s not a feature that’s mandated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), but an optional component included in the Flightcontroller course.
If that twin-engined aircraft had been a Phantom, a Mavic, or any of the myriad of commercially available RPAS capable of operating at many times that altitude – it would have been nigh on impossible to detect.
Flightcontroller founder and managing director, Alex Grivas said that the helicopter flight is intended to give would-be drone pilots a very real sense of exactly what the pilot of a manned aircraft experiences while operating in urban airspace.
“The heli flight is included partly to give RPA pilots a sense of what can be seen from the air, with a particular eye to how hard it is to see drones – reinforcing this need for vigilance from the drone pilots. It was also partly to give a sense of the radio environment in and around a busy traffic area,” he said.
“Manned pilots are supposed to fly no lower than 500 feet, but in practice they have a tolerance of +/- 100 feet for altimeter error and a further +/- 100 feet for flying error, meaning that a normal flight, along the harbour for example, could conceivably be at 300 feet AGL – which obviously puts it into direct conflict with drone operations,” he said.
“Law enforcement, air ambulances and the military are known to routinely fly lower than 500 feet AGL, which again means that drone operators can’t assume that if they are flying below their 120 metre / 400 foot ceiling that they won’t be in conflict with manned operations, particularly in busy metropolitan areas, but also in rural areas where low flying occurs regularly.”
The thrill of a helicopter flight aside, the experience is sobering, and underscores the central take-away from working through the RePL units – in the eyes of the law, and the ecosystem of professional aviation, a UAV is an aircraft – and you’re in their skies, so you better know what you’re doing.
You may be wondering why you’d need to go through this process at all. I mean, anyone can buy a drone off the shelf and start flying, right? Not so fast.
CASA essentially de-regulated RPAS weighing less than two kilograms in total (aircraft and payload) in September 2016, allowing these systems to be operated, even commercially, by those without an RePL, in a class known as ‘excluded operations’. While you can buy a fair chunk of airborne surveying or mapping technology that would conform to this restriction, many capabilities are only available on larger aircraft and more sophisticated systems, such as PPK systems and LiDAR units, and there are a number of procedural and practical advantages to operating with an RePL.
Sphere Drones, an Australian reseller and service partner for industry-focused RPAS platforms has recently published a white paper titled ‘Drone Mapping: the four tiers’, which covers the basic principles of photogrammetry, and the impacts of technology and aircraft choices on this application. Their white paper classifies a range of aircraft and sensor packages according to ratings in terms of efficiency, accuracy, economy of operation and sophistication. Thomas Tadrowksi, product manager for geospatial and remote sensing with Sphere, said that the remote pilot’s license should be foundational for any commercial operator.
“Most project managers for civil engineering and mining projects will insist on evidence that the drone operator has a RePL certificate. This is because it ensures that the on-site insurances are properly accredited and covered,” he said.
“It also guarantees that the correct risk assessment procedures have been formally covered, making it very difficult for a drone pilot without an RePL to obtain third party/property and also public liability insurance.”
Tadrowski noted that requesting area approvals from CASA – required for operations in almost all public areas – is ‘significantly easier and more rewarding’, a view echoed by Alex Grivas, founder and chief pilot of Flightcontroller. Grivas noted that third parties that may be involved in the approval process – national parks, the office of environment and heritage, local councils and private landowners – will generally require insurance to operate within their jurisdictions, and request copies of RePLs, ReOCs, insurances, and ARNs of personnel involved in the operation.
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Only licensed RPAS pilots are entitled to request exemptions to the standard operating conditions that CASA has established for all drone flights – some of which may make or break the ability to carry out a particular job. Tadrowksi offered the example of flying above the blanket 120 metre/400 foot ceiling, which may be necessary to photograph a deep mine, or scan an elevated construction site.
Finally, the RePL forms the first step in the process for operating commercially at scale. At least one licensed pilot is required for an organisation to apply for a ReOC, which is really the golden ticket in terms of operating commercially. Tadrowksi likens operating in the excluded class to learning to drive on your own property, at your own risk; an RePL to being appropriately trained, tested and licensed to drive on public roads while conforming to the rules of the road, and a ReOC as getting your taxi license – you can own and operate for commercial gain relatively unrestricted.
Freshly-minted remote pilots emerge from the Flightcontroller RePL certification course with an aviation reference number (ARN), an aeronautical radio operator’s certificate (AROC), and a recommendation to CASA for the award of a remote pilot’s licence. The five-day course also incorporates an English language proficiency assessment to certify level four or higher, and a range of detailed theory and practice modules covering the CASA syllabus.
The theory modules of the Flightcontroller course were considerably more detailed and technical than I’d anticipated. Knowing that their course content drew heavily from their background in manned aviation, I’d expected in-depth coverage of flight principles and aerodynamics, but the granular exposition of radio transmission and frequency bands, brushless motor technology, and LiPo battery technology including detailed calculation techniques for charge and discharge rates, flight times and contemporary legal restrictions on air carriage – these elements were unexpected but welcome.
Having prior recreational experience in professional-grade radio controlled electric vehicles meant that many of these concepts weren’t entirely new to me. Comprehensive coverage of only the concepts relevant to current RPAS technologies and factors affecting conducting RPAS operations in a professional setting meant that it was entirely vocationally-focused material that remained engaging. Did you know that the capacity in watt-hours of many commercial-grade RPAS’ battery systems prohibit their carriage even in the hold of airliners? Neither did I.
The aerodynamics and flight principles were similarly tailored – finely grained coverage of key concepts that apply directly to multirotor RPAS operation, with straightforward articulation of their application in practice. A welcome refresher on aerofoil dynamics and their supporting formulae transitioned smoothly into how these phenomena affect the performance in day-to-day operation of a multicopter, including a particularly thorough exploration of the most pervasive and insidious aerodynamic hazards, that if not observed and avoided or mititgated, could see your fancy new airborne LiDAR rig dropping like a stone.
Long rotor of the law
Another module of the course’s coverage that was more involved than I would have assumed was the convoluted relationship between regulatory bodies, the rapidly evolving legal framework governing RPAS operation in Australia, and as a result – the various actions required of an RPAS operator under different sets of circumstances.
Flightcontroller’s background in manned aviation, along with being one of the very first CASA-certified providers of RPAS flight training in Australia helped inform a potted, but detailed history of the key bodies and their interaction, from the introduction of a legal framework for drones up to the present day.
CASA, Airservices Australia and the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) all have overlapping and interdependent responsibilities and jurisdictions in accounting for RPAS operations in Australian airspace. This applies to necessary procedures and approvals in advance of a proposed flight, and in the event of an incident or accident in the course of an operation. The process of applying for area approvals ahead of a flight is also remarkably involved, with a few traps for young players along the way, some that might keep you grounded, while potentially costing you a pretty penny in CASA processing fees – the advice on order of operations and pre-flight planning prior to applying for an area approval was a topic of notable value.
On terms of law itself, there is a raft of material to get across, and a process in itself to locate it. Understanding and remaining current with the ever-updated schedule of prohibited areas is a critical first step in planning a flight, as is an understanding of CASA’s AC-101 circular, a dossier containing all of the legislation pertaining to unmanned aircraft licensing and flight, formatted in a manner interpretable to those without a law degree.
Maps of the skies
Once cognisant of your status as a licensed operator of an aircraft, it holds that you should know how to access and interpret the resources that pilots, crews and ground staff rely on to operate safely. Highly detailed meteorological services though the National Aeronautical Information Processing System (NAIPS), and how to access and interpret VNC and VTC charts (Visual Navigation and Visual Terminal Charts) are crucial tools for planning flight operations and acquiring approvals, and an introduction to these and their most important components formed a practically-focused element of the theory modules of the course.
Gaining an understanding and confidence with radio communications used in aviation was a daunting but ultimately rewarding aspect of this unit also. Initially seeming far-fetched and superfluous to me when touched upon in the course overview, after two days’ listening in to radio communications while undertaking the course at an active aerodrome, and coming to grips with the reality of sharing the skies, I was convinced of its criticality. As Grivas repeated, and I learned from my flight in the Robinson – “Radio is your eyes” – as a pilot, you need the tower to do the seeing for you.
Cleared for take-off
The final components of the course were the practical modules, two days of hands-on instruction, practice and examination on operating a multicopter RPAS. This part of the syllabus was carried out at Marrickville PCYC, and the flying routines took place in a relatively confined space, without the benefit of the GPS and stabilisation aids built in to many RPAS solutions – meaning that flight practice was a very practical, at times hair-raising illustration of the flight and control theory we’d covered in preceding days.
Pre- and post-flight procedures, plotting an operation’s risks and mitigation strategies on a matrix, accounting for human and environmental factors, and dealing with emergencies in the course of an operation were all covered in detail. The contingency measures for emergencies in particular highlighted the importance of proficiency with radio and interpretation of the VTC and VNC charts – ‘flyaways’, collisions or other incidents need to be reported immediately so that manned aircraft are aware of potential hazards.
Hours and hours of flight time breeds competency and confidence even with large, expensive UAVs – and counterintuitively, the larger the aircraft, the easier they are to fly. And whilst I didn’t need to prove myself capable of extreme aeronautical prowess, a range of manoeuvres and flight basics are taught and examined, with an emphasis on calm, replicable control and confident correction of any in-flight errors.
All in all, the course was a heavyweight program of education that left me a much better pilot, with a vast new appreciation and respect for the hazards associated with drone operations, particularly with regard to potential conflict with conventional aviation, potential harm to humans and the consequences for an operator in these scenarios. The multifaceted preparations required for carrying out operations in populated areas that might involve proximity to people and buildings is insight useful to the most basic of recreational flights, and should be foundational to commercial operations. Personally, I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for carrying out an RPAS operation with any less knowledge or experience than that which I gained in completing the course.
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