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It's been a while... another drone rant

30 May 2018

It's been a while since I had a bit of a rant about drones and drone regulations so if this isn't your bag... click off to Facebook or Instagram :-)

What has been the catalyst for another rant?

Well apparently there are about to be some changes made to UK drone rules which will be announced shortly and they show just how ridiculously random drone regulations around the world truly have become.

Now you'd think that if all countries were doing their homework properly, by which I mean properly analysing the risk and coming up with regulations based on that risk analysis, there'd be a consistency to the results.

Sadly, there is not.

Today I'm going to take just one aspect of the regulations controlling drones and look at how different countries have come up with wildly different decisions on what's safe and what's not.

Perhaps the most crucial goal of regulation is to ensure that there is always a reasonable separation between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft (drones). If the two classes of aircraft never attempt to share the same piece of airspace at the same time, things get a whole lot safer.

Interestingly enough there is one common and consistent theme across the entire world -- and that is altitude restriction.

Here in New Zealand, and pretty much in every developed nation, drones and model aircraft are restricted to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (that's just over 120m for those who have escaped the imperial system).

Why restrict drones/models to 400ft AGL?

Simple, in most countries, manned aircraft are restricted to flying no lower than 500 feet above ground -- unless taking off, landing or having a jolly good excuse.

It's pretty easy therefore, to see why having 100 feet of vertical separation between drones/models and manned aircraft is a good idea. Of course, as mentioned above, there are times when manned aircraft legitimately need to dip blow 500 feet -- such as when taking off or landing.

In order to account for this it becomes necessary to also create exclusion zones around airfields and heliports -- since these are the places where collisions between manned craft and drones could become a problem otherwise.

But it's here that we start to see a total lack of risk analysis or a failure to understand the exact factors involved.

There is almost no agreement between various countries' regulators as to what represents a safe minimum distance to fly a drone/model from an airfield. Surely, if all the regulators had done their homework properly, the answer they came up with would be a consistent one -- but it's not.

Here in New Zealand, the exclusion zone is 4Km around any airport or helipad.

The justification for this is obviously that within that 4Km radius, it is possible to encounter manned aircraft that are below 500 feet and would therefore legitimately be flying at an altitude where drones (operating within the altitude restrictions placed on them by the regulations) could be found. Personally, I find it a bit of a stretch that a Cessna 172 attempting to land at Tokoroa's little airfield would be as low as 400 feet above ground when 4Km, 3Km or even 2Km out from the runway on final approach.

It seems that my skepticism is shared by the UK's CAA who are about to change the rules over there to create an exclusion zone around "protected airfields" of just 1Km radius.

Hat's off to CAA UK for doing a proper risk analysis and realising that no GA aircraft should be below 400 feet when more than 1Km from an uncontrolled airport when landing or taking off. Boo and hiss to all the other regulators around the world who have been even more ridiculous than CAA NZ when it comes to setting this exclusion zone.

Take Canada for example... they have a 5.5Km exclusion zone around airports -- although even they are a little more sensible than CAA NZ because they reduce that to a 1.8Km radius around a heliport. (Seriously, does CAA NZ not realise that helicopters don't require a very long and low approach to their landing point in the way that fixed-wing aircraft do and therefore the exclusion zone can be *much* smaller around a heliport?)

In the USA, the FAA has taken a different approach and doesn't actually exclude drones from flying around an airport... but it does require the operator to contact the tower and advise them of the drone's presence and location before flying.

In Australia, CASA has also been extremely pragmatic about the whole issue. They say that you can't fly your drone within 5.5Km of a "controlled airport" (ie: one that has a tower with air-traffic control and which is therefore likely to be very busy with large commercial/passenger aircraft) however, you can fly your drone near an uncontrolled airfield or helipad, so long as you land when a plane or helicopter comes along. Isn't this the ultimate in commonsense?

Meanwhile, CAA NZ make no distinction between controlled and uncontrolled airfields so the same exclusion rules apply to Auckland International and tiny regional airfields (such as Tokoroa) which might get just a tiny handful of manned-aircraft movements in a week. But this should not be a surprise... because other regulators around the world have excluded toys (anything with a mass of less than 250g) from their regulations due to the obviously reduced risk associated with their use... while CAA NZ considers that a 25g child's toy poses exactly the same risk as a 14.9Kg professional octocopter.

Sigh!

All of the above clearly proves that the disparity in the way that exclusion zones around airfields is handled by different regulators is very clear proof that nobody is actually doing their job properly (perhaps with the exception of CASA in Australia).

Why is it safe to fly a drone 2Km away from an airfield in the UK -- but it's not safe to do so in New Zealand? Why is it not safe to fly a drone within 2Km of an uncontrolled airfield in NZ but perfectly safe to do so in Australia, so long as you use commonsense and land if a manned aircraft comes along?

The key to compliance (and CAA admits to a lack of compliance with its rules here in NZ) is gaining the respect of the people whose behaviour and actions you wish to control. Is it any wonder that people show contempt for rules that are clearly not risk-based and seem to be more the result of a booze-fueled brainstorming session than a considered, researched and carefully considered response to the actual risks involved?

And, for the record, I still don't have a reply to the simple question I asked CAA back in April. It is now more than a month since their own imposed deadline for response came and went.

Not good enough. Not good enough at all.

I guess they're too busy schmoozing with NZALPA and execs at AirNZ so they can make their "in-flight video" on drone safety. Even though they claim to be about to launch a digital awareness strategy to educate drone users, I find it hard to believe that they have a clue what they're doing with that either... especially since I am probably the most influential force in the online world when it comes to reaching drone users and they're clearly just ignoring my questions, my offers and my attempts to help.

So... as those who've been watching videos on my XJet YouTube channel will be aware, I'm going outlaw. Instead of ridiculously restrictive rules (by international standards) I'm simply using my knowledge, understanding and commonsense to ensure that I fly safely and pose no risk to anyone or any property -- even though that is clearly a breach of CAR101 at times. If they want to try and prove to a court that I am somehow posing a danger to the public or other airspace users... good luck to them!

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