drone airport

HexCam Reaching New Heights Under New Drone Restrictions

Background

New regulations restricting the use of drones near to airports and other aerodromes were introduced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on the 13th March this year. This change in rules was fast-tracked following the well-publicised ‘Gatwick drone sightings’ in December last year and affects all drone users from children playing with toy drones in their back gardens and hobbyists, right through to experienced commercial drone operators such as HexCam. What some people may not realise is that all drones types are covered, including the smallest ‘toy’ drones, as soon as they are flown outside in a restricted area. The new restrictions can actually open some interesting opportunities - but more on that later.

Where do these new regulations apply?

Flights of drones around airports or airfields that are designated as ‘protected aerodromes’ are now even more tightly regulated than before. The newly defined ‘Flight Restriction Zones’ or ‘FRZs’ are now blanket ‘no-go’ areas for drones and it is illegal to fly in them unless you have clear permission in advance to do so. The new FRZs are made up of the areas shown in this diagram taken from the CAA’s website:

20190416 - CAA FRZ image.jpg
  • Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ) - Think of this as a 2 or 2.5 nautical mile (2.3 or 2.9 miles) radius ‘cylinder’ around the aerodrome centred on the longest runway and extending up to 2,000ft above ground level.

  • Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) - These are 1km wide rectangles extending 5km from the ends of each runway away from the aerodrome and aligned along the runway centreline. These zones also extend 2,000ft above ground level.

  • Additional Zones - Imagine a line that runs parallel to the aerodrome boundary and 1km away from it. There may be situations where this line extends out beyond the ATZ or the RPZ in which case the FRZ will have a bump to follow this line.

The zones vary slightly from airport to airport and you have a legal obligation to check if they affect you before attempting any drone flight within the FRZ, however low or however small. There are many official sources of FRZ information online including the Drone Safe website and the NATS Drone Portal.

So how do you go about seeking and obtaining clear and explicit permission in advance to fly within the FRZ?

Unfortunately there’s no easy answer as it tends to very from aerodrome to aerodrome. The best starting point is to contact the airport or airfield concerned during normal operating hours and ask to talk to Air Traffic Control (ATC) or the Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS). Outside of aerodrome operating hours, you’ll need to contact the aerodrome operator. Some airports (Norwich included) will ask you to submit your request, including full details of any planned flight, to a dedicated email address rather then simply call up ATC. Forward planning is essential and, as the time taken to obtain permission can vary significantly, commercial drone operators will need to manage their clients’ expectations carefully. ATC has no obligation to grant permission to fly within the FRZ but there is clear guidance for aerodrome operators from the CAA on how to manage requests to fly drones within the FRZ.

HexCam - Flying within the Norwich FRZ up to 800 feet

HexCam needed to put the new FRZ permissions process to the test just two weeks after their introduction in March when one of our clients asked us to capture some aerial images of a development site that’s only 0.8 nautical miles (about 1,500m) south of the centre point of the main runway at Norwich International Airport. Our required viewpoint took us to well within the FRZ.

Image © Google Earth

Image © Google Earth

We’ve worked closely with Norwich Air Traffic Control since 2012 and have always called to notify them of our flights even when there was no obligation for us to do so. It was with some nervousness then that, rather than call in as normal, we were asked to send an email detailing our planned flights and requesting permission to their new dedicated drones email address. We had the opportunity of being the first to try out this method and, as we would be under the direct control of Norwich ATC, were also able to request permission to fly higher than the standard 400 feet restriction in our CAA Permission For Commercial Operation.

Norwich ATC were very helpful, reviewing our request and granting us permission, including flying up to 800 feet, within 48 hours. This meant that not only could we reassure our client that we would be able to take advantage of the next suitable weather window, but that we could also offer them an even higher viewpoint of the site and surrounding road network - something that they were keen to emphasise.

It certainly felt a bit ‘naughty’ to be flying up at 800 feet but visibility was good and we had perfect Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) contact with the drone as well as a clear view of the surrounding airspace. While we were up there, and to say thank you to ATC and to Catton Park, we captured a couple of shots of the airport as well as the park, who had also helped us with finding a suitable place from which to take off and land.

If you’d like to know more about how HexCam can give you a new perspective then please contact info@hexcam.co.uk or call us on 01603 327676.

"It's time for sensible discussions" - drone incidents at Gatwick and Heathrow Airport

"Is the car inherently evil?”

In the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver's education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver's licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn [USA] was not known, and drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime.

There was little understanding of speed. A driver training bulletin called "Sportsmanlike Driving" had to explain velocity and centrifugal force and why when drivers took corners at high speed their cars skidded or sometimes "turned turtle" (flipped over). 

Politicians, police and judges debated how to control them: What was the law of the road, and who was guilty or innocent in cases of lawsuit and litigation?"(ref: https://tinyurl.com/y9wl7c79)

Sound familiar? So... we're here again.

It is the early days of exponential growth of a new technology, people are a little bit scared of unmanned aircraft; existing legislation and infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the pace of change and today it appears that someone has maliciously used that technology to cause major disruption at Gatwick Airport, UK. Myself and a number of my colleagues who have been living and breathing drones for a few years now have been called upon to offer comment in the media.

Why aren't the geofences working? Why can't the drones be shot down? How are they being controlled? Should drones be banned? Should we increase legislation?

Those are pretty much the questions we have been asked all day in varying tones of consternation and frustration.

Let me first say how sorry I feel for all the people caught up in the delays and inconvenience of today. Personally, I feel that Gatwick have responded totally appropriately and it is better to have people delayed and inconvenienced than to have an incident resulting in injury or death.

There are going to be a lot of learning points to take away from this situation. As an industry body we have been warning for 5 years or more that there is the potential for drones to be misused, as can any useful technology. I sat in a conference in 2013 where I explained to key stakeholders how I could potentially do exactly what has been done today, so it doesn't surprise me that it has happened, I am just very thankful that it has actually had a relatively benign outcome that will hopefully get people talking about prevention.

Unfortunately, the prevention is the difficult part at the moment. When open source technology is used, that operates on readily available frequencies, it is very easy to bypass both technological and physical barriers. Nets, birds of prey, frequency jammers etc. are not in themselves going to stop a malicious pilot until it is far too late. It is going to take the defence mechanisms, plus intelligence and education, to minimise the risk of a repetition and, at the end of the day, it may not be possible to stop it.

Geofencing is vulnerable as it relies on software respecting the geofence. All a geofence is is the equivalent of a polite notice saying "please don't fly here", if a drone says "no" or doesn't read the sign there is nothing that can be done.

Physical deterrents require that deterrent to be in the right place, at the right time. If something can fire a net, a drone can fly higher. Frequency jammers are effective up to a point, but there are ways around that.

Legislation is helpful, where people are willing to follow it. But if people say no then what can you do?

When it comes down to it, this isn't a drone issue. Drones are VERY useful; we do a lot of good work with them that either can't be done by other methods or reduces costs or improves human safety. We inspect structures, we map, we model, we create beautiful images. We have done so for the last six years and we do it well.

This is a human issue. A human has used a drone to deliberately disrupt in the same way we use drones to deliberately improve. The same can be said of almost every human innovation since the sharpened stick. Except possibly the Rubik's cube, but I bet if I dig deep enough into the internet I can find someone who has managed to misuse one.

Should we ban drones? Of course not. They are a useful tool. Should we legislate, educate and continue to innovate? Of course! It is what we do. Our instructors have trained thousands of pilots over the last five years. We hear great stories of what they are up to almost every day and I am continuously impressed by the new ideas that I see on an almost daily basis when drones are used properly as part of toolboxes and processes.

The drone industry is now shifting. The drones are not really much more difficult to use than a drill or a DSLR. A "drone operator" as a job in the future is about as likely as "hammer operator" is now, the drone is simply becoming part of the wider toolbox that different industries have open to them.

It is important that they are used properly in the context of the industries they are applied in. It is obvious, over time, that they will become even more automated and there will be further moves towards autonomy.

But all the time people still need educating and enthusing on the use of drones, we'll be here at The Aerial Academy to assist, and all the time pilots are needed to provide skills in data acquisition and post-processing, the team at HexCam will be happy to help.

I hope that the situation at Gatwick is soon resolved and that the people responsible are appropriately prosecuted. I hope that this will lead to sensible discussions on how drone technology can be appropriately legislated and risks mitigated moving forwards. And I look forward to continuing to be involved in this great emerging sector.

That's it... two-pence worth. If you want more I'll need another 4p please. It is nearly double-time for Christmas after all.

E