RPAs (drones) in civil airspace and challenges for CASA
A public seminar organised by the Sir Richard Williams Foundation
Canberra – 3 July 2013
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. The Director of Aviation Safety, John McCormick sends his apologies for not attending this seminar due to other commitments; this is a busy time of the year for us.
Let me delve into the topic straightaway. In our view, the commonly used term, ‘drones’ can place a misleading imprint in the public domain; these are not objects flying in the skies with no control. It is important to establish the perception that these aircraft are being controlled remotely by a human pilot. Thus we in CASA, in keeping pace with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) terminology use ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ (RPA) and ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft System’ (RPAS) in our lexicon.
If you think at large, unlike in the United States, Australia is yet to have a community debate about how RPAs will be used in the future, including a wide range of ethical, legal, privacy and practical issues that influence the regulations we govern. We need to ask ourselves whether these systems are safe enough to be operating in the civilian world, flying over people's homes and in the busy airspace over densely populated areas. Seminars like this and activities of this foundation will go a long way to discuss these matters at length.
From CASA's perspective, obviously the consideration of safety comes to the forefront of our decisions. Just reflect for a moment, if a certified operator uses a RPA for lifesaving patrols, for example to assist in the rescue of a drowning swimmer, there will be a positive public perception on our approvals. But it won’t be the same if one gets sucked into the engine of an Airbus on take-off.
A near miss between a RPA and a passenger jet at Perth airport three years ago shows why we are so concerned. In this instance the operator of the RPA had taken off from a park nearby and flew within 30 metres of the Pacific Blue 737-800, and fortunately the RPA was caught in the jetwash (or more commonly known as wake turbulence) which in turn caused it to spiral towards the ground. This incident could have been lot worse that it appears to be.
Therefore, as Australia’s aviation regulator, we have an important part to play in setting practical and effective regulation of RPAs in the civil airspace.
Growth of the RPA and CASA’s focus on safety
Aviation is a dynamic environment, internationally and domestically and there are always a number of challenges for CASA and the aviation industry at large. While these challenges vary, both the industry and the regulator need to ensure that safety related considerations are at the forefront of our thinking. In the case of RPA, this means ensuring the safety of any other airspace user as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground.
One of the key challenges is the rapid growth in the RPA sector. This sector has emerged as the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry this decade. Globally, civilian RPAs are set to become big business, eventually exceeding the defence market. In a market study done in 2013 by the Teal Group, a US based defence and aerospace consulting firm predicts that RPA spending in civil and defence will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide RPA expenditures of $5.2 billion annually to $11.6 billion, totalling over $89 billion in the next decade. These are big numbers.
In February 2012, there were 15 holders of Operators’ Certificates in Australia operating small RPAs for commercial purposes. In February this year, this number doubled to 30 and today we have 42 holders of Operators’ Certificate. These RPA are mainly deployed on scientific research, surveying and aerial photography. The growing number of enquiries we receive on a daily basis suggests that this number will be well into triple figures within the next 12 months.
The problem for us is the extraordinary rate these small RPAs are proliferating into the Australian airspace. With the prices as low as $2,000, anyone can buy a small, high performance multi-rotor RPA, equipped with high definition live stream video cameras, GPS, autopilot, and with decent flight time.
Most of these RPA are flown by ‘hobbyists’ who are required to stay below 400 feet, and operate only in daylight, well away from airports and highly populated areas. These recreational flyers are not required to undertake training or register their RPAs. There are no accurate records on the numbers of small RPAs now in Australia, as they are often assembled locally from components ordered online from overseas.
The retailers speculate that about 100 new multi-rotors and fixed wing RPAs are now taking to Australian skies each week. While most operators do fly responsibly, RPAs will crash, and these events are becoming popular YouTube hits.
CASA is required to respond to the rapid, uncontrolled spread of small RPAs in Australia. Our understanding is that approximately 90 per cent of the RPAs operating in Australia today are less than 7 Kgs and are relatively inexpensive and easily accessible to individuals through the open market. As you would appreciate, due to increasing numbers and their varied capabilities, it is impossible for CASA to effectively regulate all of them.
We have to address the current reality. There is no point in CASA writing regulations that can't be enforced. Therefore, CASA is in the process of writing some rules it can control. Pending consultation with industry, we are looking at options to re-categorise all RPAs into weight classes, to make it less onerous for operators but still operate within a safe regulatory environment. I will elaborate more into this little later.
As I’ve said before, we must remain focused to deliver outcomes that promote safety as our number one priority. This is further strengthened in the National Aviation Policy White Paper, which requires CASA to enhance oversight of the operation of RPAS.
Events such as this seminar are very important for CASA and Defence to share experiences so that we all hear different viewpoints. CASA, as Australia’s civil aviation safety regulator, has no authority to allow economic or commercial imperatives to influence safety-related decisions that we are obliged to make. It is only after all relevant safety-related factors have been considered with due precedence, that the economic or commercial considerations of that decision might be taken into account.
CASA’s current regulatory framework
The current Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR) Part 101 deals with unmanned aircraft, model aircraft and rockets. This regulation was promulgated in 2002 and the first RPA Operators’ Certificate was approved in 2003. Under this regulation, both small and large RPA have been treated similarly with respect to the approval requirements for operations; individuals are required to have a Controller’s Certificate, whereas, the operating entity has to hold an RPA Operators’ Certificate.
As I’ve touched on before, significant technological advances and associated cost reductions have made RPAs more accessible, including at the very small end of the RPA scale – equivalent to the hobby level have made the application of this regulation somewhat ineffective.
Considering the status quo, we are in the process of amending the current regulations, which will introduce the new terminology (RPA, RPAS etc) in line with ICAO terminology and to clarify the policy intent. Eventually, we may consider introducing a new Part that will bring the regulations into line with ICAO and will incorporate the emerging work of other leading regulatory bodies like the FAA and EASA.
Current process for approving RPA Operations
The current process for obtaining a RPA operator’s certificate is quite rigorous. The following actions are required to obtain an operator's certificate:
- undertake the exams for the relevant Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), either Aeroplane or Helicopter, depending on the aircraft type to be flown (this equates to applicants required to complete about 90 per cent of a conventional private pilot's course).
- obtain a Class 2 medical certificate
- obtain a UAV Controller Certificate
- apply for an Instrument Rating exam exemption
- complete a risk assessment on the planned operations
- develop operations, flight and maintenance manuals.
As you can see, the approvals process is quite onerous and time consuming. CASA understands the commercial burdens of the industry and is looking at ways to make this process less onerous but without compromising safety.
Broader use of RPA and current limitations
The use of RPA will continue to expand as technologies and performance characteristics become better understood. Improved long flight durations, covert operational capabilities, and reduced operational costs serve as natural benefits to many communities, such as law-enforcement, agriculture and environmental sectors. As technologies develop, mature and become able to meet defined standards and regulations, RPA roles could expand to include more complex operations and eventually possibly even carrying passengers.
A civil market already exists for commercial RPAs. However, in the long run, this market will likely remain limited until the appropriate regulatory framework is in place. Any significant expansion will also depend upon the development and certification of technologies required to enable the safe and seamless integration of RPA into all classes of airspace. I am speaking here of the technologies relating to detect and avoid.
The demand for small RPA flying visual line-of-sight for law enforcement, survey work, and aerial photography and video will continue to grow. Larger and more complex RPA, able to undertake more challenging tasks, will most likely begin to operate in controlled airspace where all traffic is known and where ATC is able to provide separation from other traffic.
This could conceivably lead to routine unmanned commercial cargo flights one day. For example FEDEX has an application with the FAA for an unmanned 747 for cargo operations. While it is unlikely to be approved for some time, it is interesting to note that people are already looking to the future use of RPAs
Privacy and environmental concerns
The right to privacy is another controversial topic one hears when discussing RPAs. Common questions like, ‘will they erode our sense of privacy?’, ‘will they become the tool of choice for perverts and other criminal elements?’ comes to the forefront when we discuss use of RPAs in the civil airspace. Dealing with matters related to privacy is not part of CASA’s role; it is a matter for the Australian Privacy Commissioner, but nevertheless I’m trying to make the point here that privacy is an issue that has to be dealt with.
However, CASA believes that the RPA community can play a critical role in educating the broader public and engaging in meaningful dialogue with them to demonstrate the positive aspects of RPA technology and the benefits that can be provided to mankind.
Another evolving topic is environmental issues; again, while acknowledging that it is not part of CASA’s role, like manned aircraft, RPA operations will have an impact on the environment. It is critical that as RPA are designed, built and operated, their environmental footprint, noise and gaseous emissions, are compliant with the applicable standards.
Close interaction with ICAO and other international bodies
CASA is a member of the ICAO Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group (UASSG), which is developing standards and recommended practices for RPAS on a global level. So far, the ICAO UASSG has had amendments approved to Annexes 2, 7 and 13 to allow the operation, registration and accident and incident reporting of RPAS. The UASSG is currently developing a RPAS Guidance Manual to provide guidance to States on how to develop their own regulations, which will be completed in November and published in August next year following the ICAO editorial process. Commencing early next year, work will start on amending Annexes 1,6,8 and 10 to include the licencing, airworthiness, operations and equipment provisions of RPAS.
One of CASA’s officers has been appointed as chair of the ICAO unmanned aircraft systems study group to develop the regulatory framework to integrate RPA in all classes of airspace alongside with manned aircraft.
Further, CASA’s Director chaired the 12th Air Navigation Conference, held in Montréal late last year. This Conference was attended by over 1000 participants from 120 States. A number of recommendations came out of the conference relating to RPA, most notably, that ICAO, as a matter of urgency; develop the necessary regulatory framework in its entirety to support the integration of RPA into all classes of airspace and at aerodromes. We will take into account ICAO’s position to create a framework to ensure harmonisation of provisions to accommodate RPA operations.
As the regulator, we need to develop procedures and processes consistently taking into account the work of ICAO and the leading manufacturers of RPAS from the US, Europe and Asia.
Work of other regulatory authorities
Let’s look at what other leading states are doing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimated 15,000 civil and commercial drones could be flying by year 2020, and as many as 30,000 by 2030.
Interestingly, under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the US Congress has tasked the FAA to integrate UAS into the domestic airspace by September 2015. However, this will be delayed due to their budgetary constraints and debate over privacy issues.
The FAA also acknowledge that Small Unmanned Aircraft (sUAS) are likely to grow most quickly in civil and commercial operations because of their versatility and relatively low initial cost and operating expenses. The FAA is working on a proposed rule governing the use of a wide range of small civil unmanned aircraft systems. We are closely following these developments.
In 2012, a reauthorisation bill directed the FAA to allow a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing less than 2 kg under certain restrictions. The bill specified these RPA must be flown within the line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, during daylight conditions, inside Class G (uncontrolled) airspace and more than five miles from any airport or other location with aviation activities. Our rules specify three nautical miles from aerodromes and 30 meters from people.
Also, it’s worth noting that the FAA small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee had recommended a weight break of 55 pounds (approximately 25 kg) between small and large RPA.
UKCAA Operators who intend to conduct aerial work using small unmanned aircraft are required to apply for permission from the authority. This is something we are doing at the moment.
In essence, if the aircraft has a mass of 20kg or less, the current regulations state, that the operation must not endanger anyone and needs approval to conduct the flight within 'Controlled' Airspace.
The French DGCA divide the weights of RPA into three categories: less than 2kg, between 2kg–25kg, and between 25kg–150 kg. Any RPAs that are above 150 kg of weight is handled by EASA.
The Canadian regulations are still under development. However, the current premise is that an RPA operator must be able to demonstrate that they are adequately equipped to safely operate the RPA in the desired environment. This is our standing as well.
Transport Canada is developing a model to analyse the potential harm from a small RPA. This model will examine the kinetic energy per unit area. The proposed regulations will not require approval for a low energy RPA. A low energy RPA is one that has been analysed and/or demonstrated, to not impart peak energy of more than 12J/cm2 kinetic energy/unit area, this is equivalent to a small RPA with a wingspan of half a meter weighing approximately 2 kgs and having a speed of approximately 20 knots.
CASA is closely monitoring these developments around the world and will remain focused on the higher-level performance-based standards.
CASA’s approach for an updated regulatory framework
The principal objective of an updated aviation regulatory framework is to achieve and maintain the highest possible uniform level of safety.
Identifying the commonalities and differences between manned and unmanned aircraft is the first step toward developing a regulatory framework that will provide, at a minimum, an equivalent level of safety for the integration of RPA in all classes of airspace and at appropriate aerodromes defined by CASA.
CASR Part 101 currently divides RPA into small and large, based on a weight break of 150 kg (100 kg for rotorcraft). This 150 kg weight limit was arbitrarily based on the then category of ‘giant model aircraft’ and is not risk-based.
The entry control criteria will be assessed to more appropriately match with the level of complexity and risk posed by the applicant’s proposed operation. The current proposal is to adopt a risk-based approach, based on the weight of the RPA.
A project has been approved to identify the risks associated with different levels of weight and speed of the RPAs, based on the potential for harm to people on the ground, damage to property, or damage to passenger-carrying aircraft (in a way similar to a bird strike).
It is proposed that RPA be divided into groups characterised by their weight. So far the work we have done leads us to believe that only RPA above a certain weight require a CASA approval.
However, operators of RPAs in the lower weight range would be required to be registered with CASA and each RPA in that weight range would require an identification plate with the owner’s name and address.
RPA that are very small, for example less than 2kg would not require any approval as RPA of this size are considered to pose a low risk and low potential for harm.
Large RPA will attract more stringent controls and will face greater scrutiny. For example, the Scan Eagle weighs about 20kg and it is capable of flying to New Zealand. Therefore, in the interest of safety, it is prudent that the operator will be licensed, have a full risk assessment, and the operation will be treated like a real aircraft.
This thinking is at an early stage, but certainly has the potential to have constructive debate about this proposal. We are formulating the policy and it will be ready for consultation in the near future.
In other words CASA is trying to write some rules it can control without compromising safety.
Development of the complete regulatory framework for RPA will be a lengthy effort. This is not a knee-jerk reaction, it is an evolutionary process, with regulations being added or amended gradually. In the first instance, we propose to have non-binding guidance material in advance of the regulations for use by the industry. Close adherence to the guidance material will facilitate later adoption of the revised or new regulations and will ensure harmonisation across the industry and with the rest of the world.
To facilitate a consistent approach, we have established a specialist RPA team within our Operations Division to manage all aspects of RPA operations. The creation of this team also comes with our commitment to ensure the staff employed remains current in terms of skills and training relevant to the RPA industry.
As you are probably aware, CASA works very closely with the aviation industry through the Standards Consultative Committee (SCC), which is made up with a number of subordinate groups, to make recommendations to CASA on the development of regulations, standards and other associated advisory material.
Under the patronage of the SCC, a RPAS Working Group was formed to review regulations and advisory material with an objective of providing more comprehensive guidance to industry on the regulatory requirements and approval processes for commercial operation of RPAS in Australia.
The guidance material will consider the long term integration of RPA into aviation operations in all classes of airspace. However, there are significant technological advances within RPAs that needs to happen before it can take place.
The working group is also looking at developing a special set of regulatory provisions that will allow the use of RPA in emergency situations in a responsive manner whilst operating safely. It is our firm belief that RPA can provide a very valuable benefit for emergency services and CASA is being proactive to enable these operations to benefit our community. RPA that have the potential to provide emergency services in the form of fire spotting, for example using Defence RPAs, the Heron or the Shadow 200 or the Scan Eagle.
CASA recognises the needs of the industry to be able to develop and use RPA in the Australian airspace in the shortest possible timeframe. However, we have an obligation of allowing these operations in a manner that guards safety of other airspace users, as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground. Further, there are significant number of technical issues for which standards have not been yet determined around the world. As I’ve said before, we will take into account international developments and where possible we will make practical and safe ways to advance the operations of RPS in the civil environment.
In closing, I commend the work this foundation is doing and bringing together the regulator, academia, and Defence to look at some of the challenges posed by the rapid growth of RPA operations.