Anthont Venetz, Across Safety Development, looks at the opportunities offered by drones and UAVs, as well as the risks and the challenges of getting regulation right.

Drones, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles), RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft systems) — whatever term you like to use, one thing everyone can agree on is that there has been an enormous amount of development in the unmanned aviation industry over the last decade. The genie is certainly out of the bottle (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the drone is out of the box) and governments and regulators are now working out ways to catch up.

A new industry but an old problem

Drones might be relatively new, but this situation certainly isn’t. It’s normal for technology and innovation to precede regulation. The Wright brothers didn’t have to spend a lot of time checking regulatory compliance in 1903. It was 1911 before the first regulations came into effect in the UK and only 1926 when the USA introduced regulations for aircraft certification and licencing.

As is also usual, there are somewhat competing priorities when it comes to regulation: maintaining public safety versus encouraging innovation, i.e. risk versus reward.

So what are the risks and what are the rewards? In a nutshell, on the risk side we have the increased potential for negative outcomes related to unfettered drone development and use – drones colliding with people and/or property on the ground, and collisions with manned aircraft in-flight.

On the reward side of the equation we have: economic benefits (e.g. drone and related IT commerce as well as improved productivity across numerous verticals), utility (e.g. providing services that were previously impossible or cost prohibitive) and improved safety for people engaged in high-risk activities (e.g. emergency responders).  The challenge then for governments and regulators is to provide an operating environment where these are weighted appropriately.

Public perceptions

Public perception plays an important role, especially in democratic societies, and if the day comes when a drone is responsible for the loss of a passenger jet, the mood of the public and therefore the regulators will change rapidly. So it’s important for regulators to get involved early on in an attempt to reign in what could otherwise become a reckless and unacceptably dangerous industry.

Certainly a state could simply say ‘all drones are illegal’ and that would be that. However, it would then miss out on the benefits too. A bit like the way aircraft could be made much safer by keeping them parked on the ground. Clearly it is important to strike a reasonable balance between the risks and rewards.

The chicken or the egg?

That’s not to imply that safety only comes from regulation. Drone manufacturers and responsible operators are keenly aware of the need for safety in their industry, no doubt from a moral imperative but also from the very real need to foster a positive public perception of the industry. Manufacturers have already put an enormous amount of effort into developing safety features ahead of any regulatory requirement to do so. As some of these technologies become embedded, refined and validated they will no doubt find their way into the regulatory requirements (as has been the case with many improvements in manned aviation like traffic and ground collision avoidance systems – TCAS and GPWS).

Absolute safety?

Safety risks in manned aviation have never been zero; they never will be. The same holds true for drones. Absolute safety is a myth – it’s a matter of ensuring risk is maintained within an acceptable level and the challenge for the drone sector and regulators is how to decide what acceptable looks like and how to prove that it’s being achieved.

In an attempt to keep a lid on things, current commercial drone regulations in the UK and Europe are generally very prescriptive. For example, many drones are already technically capable of performing autonomous operations beyond the visual line of sight of the operator (BVLOS). However, regulations prohibit that kind of operation.

In the UK and Europe, operators that wish to make a more complete use of drone capabilities need to apply for dispensations or permissions from their regulator. These are only approved at the level of individual operating safety cases. They are prepared by operators largely without any formal guidance material to work towards, and then assessed on a case-by case basis (and on a State by State basis). This is not a sustainable approach but thankfully there are developments (currently on-going) towards a more harmonised approach based, amongst other things, on the concept of standardised operating cases.

What next?

The next exponential growth phase in the drone industry will come through integration of drones into shared use airspace (as opposed to the one-off segregated airspace reclassifications currently required for BVLOS) and autonomous multi-drone operations (as opposed to a reliance on one skilled operator per drone).

There are of course significant technical challenges to overcome in order to ensure acceptable safety standards are maintained – areas such as Unmanned Traffic Management systems and sense-and-avoid capabilities being a couple of headline areas.

Whilst there is no crystal ball and no one can really say what the drone industry will look like a few years from now, one thing is sure – it won’t look anything like it does today.

Anthony will discuss this topic in more detail at the inaugural FINN Sessions at Farnborough Airshow (July 16-22).

Subscribe to the FINN weekly newsletter.