Trim the fat: fostering agility with RPAS certification

By on 14 November, 2018

Traditional asset inspection workflows for road infrastructure require considerable investment in skills and equipment, with high safety risks and frequent traffic disturbances.

This article is the first in a series, in which we’ll walk through what’s required to obtain your remote pilot’s license and remote operating certificate to fly remotely piloted aircraft ( RPAs) commercially in Australia. The next installment, where we guide you through the process of getting your Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL), can be found in the August/September edition of Position magazine. Look for the conclusion of the series in Position’s December issue.

Even a decade ago, few could have predicted the scale of the civilian drone industry’s runaway success.

As a consumer sensation, Chinese manufacturer DJI has rewritten the rules on market domination with their rapidly iterated line of powerful, user-friendly quadcopters. Their Phantom and Mavic product lines have ignited colossal demand for the unique blend of recreational flying, personal cinematography and exploration offered in the experience of owning a drone, the latter tapping into the aspirations of Millennial adventurers with a suite of modes that essentially automate the flying and filming experience.

But beyond the lifestyle hype, the lasting disruption will be the impact on legacy industries offered by commercial application of these incredibly sophisticated tools. First to collect were those working with motion capture already: cinematographers and independent filmmakers vaulted into the space, taking advantage of the impossibly lower overheads of using multirotor UAVs to capture aerial photography, where previously an avgas-thirsty manned helicopter would have been required — with all of the attendant, costs, risks and required approvals. Suddenly anybody could shoot technical, cinematic aerial scenes — not just those with Hollywood-deep pockets.

The fever gripped other sectors soon after. Real estate became an unlikely-seeming adherent, with 360-degree aerial sweeps of properties becoming an advertising staple. Survey applications were a little slower off the mark, but as the technology for processing UAV-derived imagery quickly matured, and LiDAR scanners shrunk down small enough, uptake into workflows within construction, infrastructure maintenance, mining and agriculture blossomed and continues to grow steadily.

Alex Imvriotis of Burning Sands Productions found there was a lot more to safe, legal commercial operation of a drone than he initially considered.

Regulation plays catch-up

As with most disruptive developments, legislation trails in technology’s wake, leaving yawning gaps of opportunity and risk. The explosion in uptake of consumer drones — incredibly competent small aircraft that could fly at high speed, achieve mammoth altitudes and required little to no training to fly — was unprecedented. Once the sole preserve of hobbyists who understood the risks of aviation and generally treated their flights with the same respect as pilots of full-sized aircraft, the sudden influx of new flyers with this new breed of aircraft had perhaps predictable results — which are neatly encapsulated in the hashtag ‘#dronecrashmas’.

Seeing the imminent risks to conventional aviation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clamped down hard on this largely unregulated space in 2014. In the United States, where these potent little aircraft had already been put to a range of civilian uses including research, environmental monitoring and search-and-rescue, non-commercial use was banned outright until a fully-developed legal framework could be put in place.

Unnerved at a number of near misses and complaints from the professional UAV and aviation industries proper, the FAA chose to shut it all down before an accident may actually have stopped the accelerating industry in its tracks. When they did introduce a comprehensive set of guidelines governing use of UAVs, they based it around the one jurisdiction in the world that had developed a cohesive framework of legislation — Australia.

Tickets to ride

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is responsible for overseeing all aviation activities in Australia, and are the body responsible for creating and implementing laws governing use of drones. Currently, UAVs weighing between 100 grams and 2 kilograms can be flown for commercial purposes without a licence in the ‘excluded’ category —  if you are willing to notify CASA and wait for permission every time you fly in a new location.

This isn’t plausible for many operators that rely on the use of UAVs for anything other than one-off occasions.

Alex Imvriotis is the owner of Burning Sands Productions, a Sydney-based film studio that primarily produces short films for promotion and marketing of small businesses. Imvriotis has undertaken his Remote Pilot licence (RePL), meaning that he no longer needs to apply for permission to fly for a shoot.

“Every video that we do has some form of a drone used in it, because we believe that it adds value and a different perspective on the stories that we’re trying to tell,” he said.

Training for an RePL is an involved affair, covering a comprehensive syllabus of aeronautical theory, as well as operational flight training. Imvriotis carried out his training at Flightcontroller, a RPAS training school that drew on their extensive in helicopter licensing to develop a six-day RePL training program that covers topics including RPAS aerodynamics, multirotor systems, RPAS law, radiotelephony, aviation meteorology, human factors and risk management.

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Imvriotis says he was shocked at the complexity of the factors involved in flight after completing the course.

“I think the general public needs to know how much information they need, and education that they may personally need to do before flying a drone — even recreationally,” he said.

“I went in to do my course as a recreational flier, and I saw how much work, concentration and knowledge you need to actually know about your surroundings and the airspace — even now when I go flying recreationally, I don’t take that for granted.

You really become aware of how much can go wrong — and if it does go wrong, that it actually can be fatal.”

Imvriotis is currently applying for a RPA Operators Certificate (ReOC), the next stage of certification as a commercial drone operator. A ReOC is an organisation-level certificate that would allow them to fly within controlled airspace with permission, which includes Sydney Harbour and much of the CBD, sites that Burning Sands frequently need to shoot within.

Putting it into practice

Elliott McRobert, Senior project manager at Amey and asset manager at Amey-Broadspectrum, had similar impressions after undertaking his RePL training. Working at VBAJV (Ventia Boral Amey Joint Venture) at the time, he spearheaded an initiative to integrate UAVs into all of his department’s asset inspection operations, which handled major contracts covering a significant proportion of the road infrastructure in NSW — encompassing roads, bridges, flying gantries, cuttings and culverts.

“Normally, inspecting a bridge, you either need to climb up, set up scaffolding or use a heavy lift vehicle,” he said.

“For example, there’s a road with a bridge on one of our networks in Sydney, and we need to shut the entire road in both directions to do an inspection. That’s ten grand. We need a specific under-bridge unit to do it, that’s another ten grand, along with traffic control, communications — and it takes a fortnight to do.”

Drones are well suited to applications that may be difficult to access via traditional means.

The Amey asset inspections team can now carry out this same inspection using a single, off-the-shelf quadcopter with a top-mounted camera. McRobert said that the key advantage in transitioning to UAV-borne inspections was safety, but that the cost savings and efficiency gains were colossal.

“Once we did the business case, we realised straight away that it was worthwhile so we just went right in and did it [the RePL course],” he said. But upon completing the training, McRobert found that that the regulations and the laws are a lot more complicated than they had accounted for.

“We knew you couldn’t fly around airports, but we didn’t realise that there are all these other restrictions as well. Around hospitals, helipads — this, that and the other one. So most of the area we looked after, we couldn’t fly in without a ReOC and a flight plan submitted to CASA,” he said.

“But the efficiencies and cost savings were still so large that a little bit of extra planning wasn’t going to change things that much.”

McRobert has just completed the process of acquiring a ReOC certificate for Amey, which means the organisation is licensed to operate their UAVs without requiring per-flight approval. No further training is required for this process, but applicants need to demonstrate that they have created a set of operational procedures, policies and management plans within the organisation for safe use of UAVs. The process was assisted by Alex, founder of Flightcontroller, who worked with them as a consultant.

“It was quite a smooth process — but without someone like him it would probably be quite an involved process going back and forth with CASA,” McRobert said.

Amey has big plans for its drone fleet going forward. All of their inspectors will soon be licensed, and with their recently-acquired ReOC, they can fly around structures to perform their inspections. UAVs will also be used for all construction projects going forward, for which they’ll be using them to create point clouds and BIM models — including for around 800 kilometres’ worth of road assets that they need to model in the next three years. McRobert said that this will decrease their training costs by allowing them to conduct VR training programs, meaning they do not to conduct all training sessions on site, with the additional benefit of facilitating refinement of the models themselves by increasing site-model familiarisation.

Applications in the wild

An interesting thing happened once this technology was applied within McRobert’ department. Others in the company and the broader group began integrating them into their own operations in novel ways. Partner Broadspectrum is using drones to inspect electrical cables in Queensland, they’re being flown inside pressure vessels, and drones enclosed by cages are being flown inside of pipes and waste management infrastructure.

McRobert said that this was one of the key take-aways from the experience so far, along with a caveat for those considering going down this path.

“Once it gets out in the company, lots of people come up with other ideas — and there are many more applications out there that people haven’t even thought of yet,” he said.

“But you need to communicate the key restriction around using them throughout the organisation. It’s not the case that you can just go and buy one and start using it, you’ve actually got to go through the whole planning process, and it’s a lot more involved than we initially thought.”

This article is the first in a series walking through the regulations and process for getting licensed and certified to operate RPAs commercially in Australia. The next installment, where we guide you through the process of getting your Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL), can be found in the August/September edition of Position magazine. Look for the conclusion of the series in Position’s December issue.      

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