The world of drones:
The word “drone” seems to have become a buzzword synonymous with scaremongering in the mainstream media. This was particularly noticeable during the middle of last year, when the CAA published its Part 101 rule revision on 1 August which updated its antiquated model aircraft regulations to become more relevant to the mass increase in popularity that consumer UAVs have generated, thanks to the craft themselves becoming increasingly affordable as technology advances.
As both a fixed wing pilot and an avid droner myself, I’ve been following New Zealand’s adaption to the UAV application with great interest. It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that the capability of these small unmanned devices will eventually supersede many of the jobs that the larger manned craft have been plying unrivalled for decades, and it really feels as though we’re on the cusp of a technological revolution with email alerts continually popping up, detailing the latest and greatest sensor that can be added as payload to bigger and more powerful quad, hex and octocopters!
The rule changes that came about in 2015 are minor really, with the requirement to have the landowner’s or occupier’s consent before flying your UAV over the top of it being the main addition to the existing rules that govern remote control hobbyist flying.
This common courtesy is something the majority of flyers have always been doing without needing to be asked, and it’s the CAA’s way of creating dialogue between UAV operators and those who might be underneath their intended flight paths on the subject of flight safety (that is: here is an explanation of what I will be doing to prevent the machine falling out of the sky on to your head).
Unfortunately, just about every media outlet completely missed this point and went along the lines of the new landowner consent requirement being a privacy issue, insinuating that drone operators are all getting up to no good snooping on their neighbours with their flying cameras.
I deliberately declined the opportunity of being interviewed on TV for fear of my words being warped, but I would have offered the rebuttal that there are plenty of ordinary telephoto lenses capable of zooming halfway across town from somebody’s house window that are 100 times more privacy invasive than the wide angle camera on my equipment that actually makes the subjects I shoot look further away than they are!
Rule Part 102 was also created, allowing for serious commercial drone operators to gain blanket approval to fly nationwide under a CAA approved exposition. This is particularly suited for those flying machines weighing more than 15kg and requires the implementation of approved hazard and risk mitigation systems as well as deep pockets to cover the associated paperwork costs.
The majority of the rest of us who fly under Part 101 Subpart E—Remotely Piloted Aircraft, Control Line Model Aircraft and Free Flight Model Aircraft are quite fortunate actually, with no differentiation between private and commercial operations in the rule set. Commercial drone operations in the USA are currently prohibited by the FAA, but here in New Zealand there are plenty of smaller off-the-shelf UAVs being legally used for tasks such as real estate photography, aerial cinematography, surveying and infrastructure inspections.
Other rules contained within Part 101 include not flying above 400ft above ground level (with the idea being there is a buffer of 100ft between the drone’s upper limit and any manned aircraft’s lower straight-and-level limit of 500ft AGL over unpopulated areas). This is something that can generally be hard coded into the flight computer of off-the-shelf UAVs to prevent unintentional altitude conflicts, as well as having a live readout on the controller screen derived through GPS receivers in the drone itself.
Operating a UAV within a 4km radius of any airport or heliport listed in the AIP comes with the sensible requirement to hold (or be supervised by the holder of) a Part 61 pilot’s licence, a Part 149 issued microlight/glider licence or a model aircraft type qualification issued by Model Flying New Zealand.
This must be accompanied with the consent of the airport management before proceeding, although at the time of writing this, the likes of Mechanics Bay in downtown Auckland has stated it will refuse any such requests to operate UAVs in the vicinity of the helipad due to the sheer volume of requests that they deal with, reaching a point where the processing time required would adversely affect the safe administration of their own full-size rotary wing operations.
On the other hand, Pikes Point Heliport in Onehunga has publicly released a helpful chart showing sections of its 4km circle where UAV operations are restricted to 200ft AGL; UAV operations are unrestricted up to 400ft AGL; and a small zone where UAV operations are completely restricted due to the approach and departure paths of full-size helicopters.
ATC authorisation for entry into controlled airspace is another requirement implemented with Part 101, whereby UAV operators can submit a request via Airways NZ’s airshare website, a free-to-use online flight planning tool that requires the input of map co-ordinates, time and date of UAV flight, intended altitude above ground level and details of safety equipment your drone has (many now have “return to home” functionality in the event of signal loss above a minimum set height to clear obstacles).
This information is then emailed to the appropriate control tower and is easily accessible by the duty controller when you ring them on the day prior to liftoff. The teams at both Auckland and Whenuapai Towers that I’ve been dealing with personally have been excellent and have the whole process seamlessly streamlined for minimum fuss with a practical approach to traffic separation.
The airshare website also features a zoomable Google map with all New Zealand controlled airspace, restricted areas, low flying zones and military areas, layered on top for the layman to easily see whether or not permission is needed from an administering authority before conducting a drone flight.
Shielded operations were also introduced last year, whereby it is permissible for UAVs to be flown inside controlled airspace, or within a 4km radius of an airport, WITHOUT permission from ATC, as long as they are flown within a 100m lateral distance and not above the top of a manmade or natural feature, as well as ensuring some form of barrier exists that is capable of arresting the flight of the aircraft.
In layman’s terms this means a stand of trees or a tall wide building, and Rex Kenny, CAANZ’s manager Special Flight Operations & Recreational Aviation, says it was added to the 101 rule set so that kids on the Miramar Peninsula who get a toy drone for their birthday can still fly them in their back gardens without having to ring up Wellington Tower every time they want to play.
It’s worth noting that the same rules apply when flying UAVs at night, regardless of airport proximity or being inside controlled/uncontrolled airspace.
Operating beyond visual line of sight is the last rule that has caused some debate in the industry, with research by economic analyst Andrew Shelly indicating $152m–$190m of profit could be made annually in New Zealand by permitting these types of operations, particularly spraying or inspection in the agricultural sector.
The counter argument, however, is that the drone operator must be able to see the surrounding airspace that the drone is operating in to prevent a collision with terrain, trees, power lines or even other aircraft. While most drones with cameras on can relay a live stream from the forward facing camera to the controller, they can see only a certain field of view in one direction at a time and so have ample opportunity to miss a closing hazard from another bearing.
For drone racer types who fly lightweight quadcopters at high speed while wearing first person view (FPV) goggles, an exemption to this rule allows for a trained and competent observer who must have the aircraft and surrounding airspace in their own unaided visual line of sight and be in direct communication with the person operating the aircraft.
On top of all the CAA legislation (which is summarised neatly on a bright orange pamphlet and enclosed in the packaging with the majority of brand new off-the-shelf UAVs being sold in New Zealand), local council privacy/nuisance driven bylaws regarding drone operations must also be complied with but are not as widely publicised.
For example, many flyers wouldn’t realise that to fly a UAV recreationally at the local park or beach, consent from either the local city council or DOC which owns the land is required. The major city councils have been quick to offer a blanket set of rules that refer to Part 101 for the most part (summarised under “MY FLIGHTS” on airshare), although if the drone flight is for commercial photography or videography purposes, permits are required.
Both ScreenAuckland (through the Auckland Council), and the Thames Coromandel District Council which I have been dealing with have been great at assisting me with what is still broadly considered an unfamiliar and somewhat confusing “tech geek” concept to many staff.
With the FAA estimating that a million drones were gifted in the States this Christmas just gone, and a much reduced yet proportionate increase in number assumed here over the same period, I am keener than ever to do my part for promoting a safe drone culture in our skies.
Skills such as interpreting all the double negatives found within CAA legislation, digging out advisory circulars, being able to read a VNC map and having a basic awareness of aerial activity in surrounding airspace come as second nature to those from an aviation background, but for Joe Average I fear this could quickly become overwhelming.
Airways has recently announced an interactive online course for those new to UAV flying at the price of $35, although I can’t imagine the uptake being as high as it could be if it was made free of charge and heavily promoted through social media to target age/interest groups.
I imagine it would take only one incident involving a collision with a full-size aircraft (think birdstrike with a lithium polymer battery; several aerodrome circuit incursions have already been reported), or loss of control resulting in severe injury to an unsuspecting bystander, for the lawmakers to ground what is both a hobby as well as a means of income to many of us.
It is my hope that retailers selling such devices encourage the next generation of UAV pilots to hone their skills with non-camera equipped craft first, to get a good understanding of the reversed control inputs required while flying towards the operator so that they have the confidence to land safely in the event of failure of the commonly relied upon GPS assisted stabilisation flight mode that most drones incorporate.
I also feel that it’s highly important to keep the general public’s perception of drones positive, and for those of us flying UAVs to willingly interact with interested parties while we’re out in the field. While I’m setting up my equipment I am often approached by fascinated strangers who have never seen a UAV fly before and have only heard about all the negative connotations on TV.
The top questions I get asked, almost without fail, are:
• How much is it worth?
This one is about $2500, although only a couple of years ago it would have cost you over $15,000 to own something with similar capabilities!
• How far can it go?
The manual says 2km, although I must keep it in line of sight.
• How high can it go?
It is hard coded to 400ft above where we’re standing.
• How long does the battery last?
25min per battery in still conditions, but when it’s breezy the upwind rotors have to work harder to keep the drone in its intended position, which reduces flight time.
• Have you crashed it yet?
Thankfully not. I’m used to flying with little foam RC planes that are much trickier to handle!
• Can it just fall out the sky?
Not this model. It will automatically return to a GPS recorded position that it took off from when the battery falls below 20 percent or if it loses signal from my transmitter.
- Report and phototraphs by Andrew Underwood.
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