See a drone in your future? Future-proofing University RPAS operations

Futurists like to predict the many and varied uses of drones: drone taxis, first responder drones and drones that deliver are just a few anticipated applications. Drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), provide an agile and relatively cheap way to get clever technology into the air and to where we need it quickly. For this reason, some characterise them as 'flying smartphones'.

So whether you are doing it, thinking about it or still wondering what the fuss is about – drones will be a part of everyone’s future.

Research Innovation

University of Adelaide researchers are already applying this technology to various real world problems like improving crop yields, monitoring wildlife populations and the environment. The flight and systems capabilities of RPAS are also being actively tested and developed.

Such research is helping to refine the use and technical capabilities of drones. The big question is how to regulate drone use for now, while still allowing those predicted, and unexpected, opportunities to unfold.

Recent review of regulatory approach

Over the last 2 years, a Senate Committee of the Australian Parliament has been looking into this and recently released their report. This comprehensive report will broadly inform the way governments think about drone use and will significantly influence the rules that the current regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), will be required to apply.

The University’s long running relationship with CASA has highlighted how the research sector’s needs are different to many typical commercial operators. Our representation, including through a submission to the Committee Inquiry, is crucial to ensuring that the regulatory environment allows for the open development of new technologies and applications.

Like the futurists and the University, the Committee anticipates the proliferation of this technology and for this reason concluded that the regulatory system needs to be made a lot more robust. Some key points from the report are briefly outlined below.

Current rules are not sufficient to ensure public safety

The unrestricted use of drones presents a risk to people, place and other users of airspace that is not adequately controlled by the current regulatory framework:

  • Increased availability and use of RPAS raises the likelihood of a collision in airspace
  • Near misses between RPAS and traditional aircraft are increasing exponentially (151 reported in Australia in 2017)
  • Australian Regulations were considered too lenient - compared to the UK & US
  • Impact risks associated with RPAS over 250g have been underestimated
  • Aviation regulation is complicated and a growing number of drone operators do not understand it or have interpreted it incorrectly.

Registration and training needs to be geared to risk

Licensing must be linked to awareness and technical ability to manage the risk involved with the operation of aircraft in shared spaces

  • Too many of the 50,000 recreational users in Australia are ignorant of the risks and their obligations under standard operating conditions
  • Risk of adverse incident is the same for “recreational” users as for commercial licensed pilots
  • Better regulation of the activity is recommended and may include:
    • Capability of new “off the shelf” RPAS is “locked” according to operator’s demonstrated competency
    • All pilots would be required to demonstrate a base level knowledge, while those conducting complex or commercial operations would be expected to know more
    • All drones would be registered to a pilot and numbered (potentially microchipped) so as to improve opportunities for the public to report unsafe operations and CASA to act and potentially trace rogue drone operators
    • Registration being a prerequisite for public liability insurance.

Regulation of drones is a whole-of-government issue

CASA does not have the remit or capacity to deal with many of the issues arising from the increasing use of drones

  • Use of airspace is no longer the domain of trained aviators and the industry is struggling to cope with pilots who are no longer in their aircraft
  • The public needs to be confident that the use of drones is safe if the benefits are to be realised
  • A consistent enforcement regime is preferred over the ad hoc bylaws and permissions as are currently being introduced across all tiers of government in an effort to control the use of drones in shared spaces such as parks, nature reserves and foreshores
  • Privacy and surveillance have barely been considered by governments
  • Security in populous areas and suspicious RPAS use in and around significant buildings has yet to be addressed.

Technological solutions should be anticipated and refined

Government and enforcement agencies need to ready to manage multiple uses of drones in the future and technical solutions will be needed to support enforcement

  • Laws are needed to allow authorised agencies to disable, disrupt, damage or destroy a RPAS that poses a threat to safety or security
  • Possible technical strategies to assist in the control of  RPAS may include
  • Fitting aircraft with ADS-B equipment to broadcast position, velocity and identification information in real time
  • Geo-fencing to create a virtual barrier which can be used to prevent unauthorised RPAS from entering restricted airspace
  • DAA (detect and avoid) systems to give RPAS capability to see, sense or detect conflicting traffic or other hazards and take the appropriate action.

The University has future-proofed the use of drones for its current and future researchers and graduates by developing an in-house pilot training program and an RPAS operation approval process that meets public safety and all current regulatory requirements. This means that we are well placed to respond to any regulatory changes as and when they occur.

Contact URAF for more information if you can see a drone in your future too.

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