‘BVLOS Sandbox’ Trial Consultation

As a key aviation stakeholder, we’re inviting you to participate in our 12-week consultation, running from 15th January 2024 through to 8th April 2024, covering the introduction of a Temporary Reserved Area (TRA) in Norfolk’s airspace. Below you will find full details of the proposed TRA, the forecast timeline for the ‘BVLOS Sandbox’ trial and the real life construction project being used as a test bed for this new class of designated airspace.

A ‘regulatory sandbox’ allows innovators to trial new products, services and business modelsin a real-world environment without some of the usual rules applying.

To avoid any confusion, we should stress that the ‘TRA’ detailed in this consultation is NOT the same as a “Restricted Area (Temporary)” (RA(T)) or “Temporary Danger Area” (TDA).

Once you’ve reviewed the details below in full, please give us your comments and feedback using the form at the bottom of this page.

Project Background

HexCam is a professional drone services provider with over 11 years of commercial experience. We provide drone-based aerial survey, mapping, inspection and creative imaging services across a range of industries including major infrastructure construction projects associated with the connection of large offshore wind farms onto the National Grid.

HexCam has been providing aerial survey and mapping services to both Vattenfall and J Murphy & Sons for the Norfolk Offshore Wind Zone (NOWZ) project (Norfolk Boreas and Norfolk Vanguard East and West) for the past 3 years. We’re currently carrying out monthly ‘construction progress’ surveys along the western third of the cable corridor between Necton and the River Wensum at Elsing and will be extending this work along the rest of the corridor as work progresses over the next 3 to 5 years.

We currently fly a DJI M300 drone using ‘Beyond Visual Line Of Sight with Visual Mitigation’ (BVLOS VM) with a crew comprising 2 Remote Pilots (RP) and a Visual Observer (VO). We operate under a CAA Operational Authorisation (UAS117) based on our very latest Operating Safety Case (OSC).

All drone survey and mapping flights within the new TRA will be LOW LEVEL – between 300ft and 400ft Above Ground Level (AGL).

We currently identify the presence of other air users both audibly and visually (by the RPs and VO) and through the ADS-B ‘Receive Only’ functionality built into each of the RP’s controllers. However, even with our strobes and LEDs illuminated, it’s hard for other air users to see us.

Our ultimate goal is to be able to safely carry out more energy-efficient fixed wing BVLOS drone survey and mapping flights along the NOWZ construction corridor in fully integrated airspace from our airfield base in Felthorpe. The CAA’s ‘BVLOS Sandbox’ trial is a key part of our journey towards achieving that goal.

The CAA ‘BVLOS Sandbox’ Trial

We were delighted to learn in October 2023 that HexCam had been selected as one of only 6 UK companies to take part in the CAA’s ‘BVLOS Sandbox’ trials to “…help make beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights an everyday reality”. The CAA’s press release at the time gave broad details of this particular round of BVLOS trials.

We decided to apply for the ‘BVLOS Sandbox’ trial as a way to progress our technical and operational innovation and to work towards our goal of conducting BVLOS drone missions from our airfield base. By removing the need to deploy RPs and VOs along our survey routes, we can dramatically reduce the risks associated with putting people and vehicles on the ground in rural areas. Without the need to repeatedly land and reposition crew, we can also significantly reduce the number of take-off and landings and therefore the time taken to complete our survey flights.

Proposed TRA Airspace

The proposed TRA broadly follows the route of the NOWZ cable corridor from its landfall between Happisburgh and Cart Gap to the substation at Necton. In addition to the NOWZ corridor, the TRA extends south from Cawston towards HexCam’s base at Felthorpe Airfield and then on towards Norwich Airport. The TRA is best illustrated on a map which can be viewed and explored below:

The vertical extent of the TRA is up to 750ft on the Norwich QNH equating to approximately 500ft AGL along the full route.

All drone survey and mapping flights within the TRA will be LOW LEVEL – between 300ft and 400ft Above Ground Level (AGL).

The TRA test period is scheduled to run for between 6 and 12 months, starting in July 2024. Please refer to Phase 4 in “Project Phases & Timeline” below.

In advance of the TRA introduction, airspace users will start to see more HexCam Electronic Conspicuity (EC) activity along the cable corridor route as we introduce “PilotAware” EC to our drone flights in Phase 3A. We would welcome feedback from aviation stakeholders during the consultation period on their experience of our EC activity.

We will be following the CAP1616 process for the introduction of this TRA and further details of the process, in the context of BVLOS trials and the CAA’s Airspace Modernisation Strategy (AMS), are available on the CAA website.

We’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the CAA’s Electronic Conspicuity Rebate Scheme, allowing General Aviation pilots to claim a 50 per cent rebate of the cost of purchasing an Electronic Conspicuity device, is due to end shortly. The CAA is urging light aircraft pilots to take up the offer before the 31 March 2024 deadline. Further details can be found using the above link.

Project Phases & Timeline

We are already at Phase 2 of our journey towards BVLOS flights in fully-integrated airspace. The ‘phases’ required to reach that goal are set out below:

 > Phase 1 (Completed) – VLOS Operations

‘Specific Category’ commercial drone operations under a ‘standard’ CAA Operational Authorisation (OA) based on Predefined Risk Assessment PDRA01. Flight restrictions include:

  • Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) with RP at all times.
  • Maximum flight distance of 500m from RP.
  • Maximum height of 400ft AGL.

Note that, with some exceptions, HexCam no longer uses PDRA01 for large area and long distance survey and mapping operations.

 > Phase 2 – BVLOS With Visual Mitigation (BVLOS VM) No EC

HexCam is routinely carrying out large area and long distance survey mapping flights across the UK under our latest CAA-approved Operating Safety Case (OSC) that allows us to:

  • Use trained VOs in continuous 2-way radio communication with the RP to maintain VLOS with the drone (BVLOS VM).
  • Extend the VLOS range out to 850m from an RP or VO for our DJI M300 drone.
  • Using a sufficient number of VOs, operate the DJI M300 drone up to 2,500m away from an RP.
  • Operate without Electronic Conspicuity (EC).

 > Phase 3 – BVLOS With Visual Mitigation (BVLOS VM) Plus EC

Coinciding with the launch of this consultation, we plan to move to a ‘risk quantification’ phase running until approximately the end of July 2024. This phase will continue to use our DJI M300 drones and will involve 2 parts:

Phase 3A

  • The introduction of PilotAware EC to our operations including the addition of an EC device to the DJI M300 and the deployment of 2 ATOM stations: one at our base in Felthorpe and a second mounted on a mobile 18m telescopic pole deployed in the field alongside an RP.
  • We will use data gathered from PilotAware to compare against our RP / VO logged observations of crewed aviation in the field.
  • Review of 12-week consultation feedback.

Phase 3B

  • An update to our Operating Safety Case and a revised CAA Operational Authorisation.
  • Removal of the VO positioned between 2 RPs.
  • Sponsoring of additional ATOM stations for airfields in the region.

> Phase 4 – BVLOS With Only EC-equipped Traffic in TRA

Running for 3 to 6 months from approximately July 2024, this phase will see:

  • Introduction of the proposed TRA (see full details above) activated by NOTAM.
  • Introduction of HexCam’s new ‘Storm Petrel’ fixed wing drone, equipped with Mode A and C (and potentially Mode S) transponder as well as ADS-B (transmit and receive).
  • While the TRA is activated by NOTAM (expected to be approximately 2 days per month), only EC-equipped aircraft will be allowed to operate in the TRA.
  • Non EC-equipped aircraft will be able to take off from and land at Felthorpe Airfield by following standard arrival and departure procedures if they are in direct communication with HexCam’s team at Felthorpe.
  • Risk quantification will be carried out at Norwich Airport comparing Norwich ATC’s Primary and SSR data with other EC systems.
  • Establishment of a network of acoustic sensors along the NOWZ cable corridor to provide further data on air traffic to compare with Primary and SSR as well as other EC data.

> Phase 5 – BVLOS With All Traffic in TRA

Running for 3 to 6 months from the completion of Phase 4, this phase will be identical to Phase 4 with the significant difference being that the TRA will be open to all aircraft, not just those equipped with EC.

> Phase 6 – Fully Integrated Airspace

This remains the end goal and would see the removal of the TRA. All BVLOS flights would be announced by NOTAM

Feedback Form

We would encourage you to read the above information in full before providing any comment or feedback using the Google Form that can be opened using the link below:

Link to Google Form to submit feedback and comments.

If you have any questions that you’d like to discuss before submitting your feedback, or if you’re having problems completing the form, please contact Rowley Cory-Wright on 01603 327676 or email bvlostrial@hexcam.co.uk