Drones in the UK: A Full Understanding of the Regulations

After taking a look at the logistics and challenges that operators across Europe are dealing with, I got in touch with Peter Slater, Aerial Solutions UAV Manager at Costain Group PLC, to discuss his experiences using these tools at one of the UK’s leading engineering solutions providers, operating in energy, water and transportation. After forming the Aerial Solutions department within Costain in 2015, he was the ideal person to connect with to discuss what it means for an organization of Costain’s size and scope to effectively utilize drone technology.

In Part 1 of the interview with Peter Slater, he discussed his role at Costain and how they’ve been able to identify the bottom line impact drones are able to create on a given project. In Part 2, he talks about the current regulatory environment in the UK, how that has impacted what his company is able to do with drones, how a single set of UAS rules will or won’t impact the market and plenty more.

 

Jeremiah Karpowicz: What can you tell us about the current regulatory environment when it comes to operating a drone for commercial purposes in the UK?

Peter Slater: Due to our experience with service providers, our close communication with the regulatory bodies, and our in-house training programme, we have been able to get a strong understanding of the regulations of operating UAVs here in the UK. Costain has over 100 projects all across the UK in six sectors (rail, highways, oil & gas, water, power, nuclear), and there are certain regulations which differ between the different sectors. For example for the nuclear sector UAVs are not to be used within 2 nautical miles from any nuclear site. In the rail sector UAVs should not be flown near to Network Rail live assets (50m), unless the company operating the UAV is on the Network Rail UAV framework.

At the most generic level or permissions the following and more apply:

  • Visual Line of Sight from Operator
  • < 400ft Above Ground Level
  • 150m away from congested areas (Unless sub 7kg)
  • > 50m away from person, vehicle, vessel or building not under your control

To cover the basics of operating UAVs commercially in the UK; the pilot undertaking the operations needs to gain a Remote Pilot Qualification certification from an NQE registered training provider. You can then register with the CAA for your own license to operate commercially which is called a PFCO (Permission for Commercial Operations). Alternatively you register to be a pilot on your companies PFCO. The pilots then operate in line with their companies’ Operations Manual which covers the various aspects of operating a drone, accident mitigation procedures, and things to do if something goes wrong. A wide variety of exemptions can be obtained based on pilot experience, operating platform, work flows and mitigations. These could include – Extended Visual Line of Sight, night flying, flying closer than 50m to persons, vehicles, vessels and buildings not under the pilot’s control.

Costain have many projects that are in the heart of London; examples of these projects are, the new Canary Wharf, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road Crossrail stations, London Bridge Station Redevelopment, and Hammersmith Flyover Refurbishment. These projects are situated in restricted zones. Certain restricted airspace in London probably causes the most challenges and confusion for RPAS users.

The regulatory bodies here in the UK are becoming more proactive in ensuring that drone technology is utilised to its full capacity, as they see the positive impact that it brings to UK companies and the population. They have put together a programme along with the Department of Transport, and Ministry of Defence to trial Beyond Visual Line of Site in the UK in different sectors; logistics, maritime, search and rescue, agriculture, and major infrastructure.

 

How has regulation in the UK influenced what you can and want to be doing with drones?

VLOS is obviously a major limiting factor in some of the work we would want to do. Particularly for large area land surveying and complex multi rotor inspection work. Which is why we are well placed on the UK Governments Pathfinder program. This Pathfinder program is setting the UK regulatory framework for Beyond Visual Line of Sight in the UK. Working with a number of industry leading businesses, the consortium will be conducting a number of trails between now and 2020 in UK airspace.

There are three areas that will deliver lasting change:

  • Automated RPAS for asset surveys.
  • Automated RPAS for asset maintenance.
  • Automated RPAS for asset logistics (deliveries).

These will all involve some sort of BVLOS operations, therefore the changing regulations are hugely important and it is excellent to see the government partnering with industry to get it right first time.

 

Has the fact that there is not a single set of European UAS rules hindered how you can or want to be operating drones in other countries in Europe?

We are a UK only business. But yes that would be a significant challenge and disadvantage. Also it is highly illogical, RPAS technology operates the same in French air as it does in British air……because of physics. However, I appreciate that different manned aviation laws might have a knock on effect to the unmanned aviation laws.

 

How do you think the market and technology will be impacted if we don’t see that single set of UAS rules until 2019? Or is even that estimate not a feasible one?

The biggest impact will be on the scalability of service provision. This will affect investor appetite and slow down the industry at its financial core. In addition, if there are very different rules on sense and/or avoid technology (for example) this will dilute the power of investment into these R&D areas. Clarity will facilitate a focused effort and a superior product market.

Ultimately it’s the tax payers that feel the pain. This technology has the ability to significantly reduce the cost of delivering and particularly maintain infrastructure assets. Anything that slows down international knowledge sharing, and disincentives investors, slows down the positive returns to the citizens.

 

Issues around how drones impact privacy are often brought up when in comes to how regulation for drones can or should be established, but in light of the fact that the British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) estimated there are up to 5.9 million closed-circuit television cameras in the country, how do you think the privacy concerns associated with drones should be dealt with?

Almost every single person now has a high definition camera in their pocket that is constantly connected to the web and open to breach. The data coming from RPAS operations is a drop in the ocean when compared to the rapid increase in audio and visual information capture across the country.

Standard data protection laws should be followed by businesses; these are sufficient to manage the data gathering and management, in the UK we would follow the DPA (Data Protection Act) and the ICO regulations for CCTV footage. However, I can appreciate the argument. If an RPAS is surveying a building and captures a picture of a resident, and then that picture becomes unsecured on the web, there is a problem. But that structure needed to be surveyed at some point anyway. Without RPAS it likely would have taken longer involved scaffolding and or a MEWP and that photo could just have likely have been captured anyway by a maintenance worker. So really the risk is reduced. The wider security risk of sensitive infrastructure data or personal data is platform agnostic. The RPAS itself is kind of irrelevant in the management and regulation of the Data.

 

What would you say to someone in Europe that told you they wanted to wait until regulation was more defined before they tried to figure out how drones could work for them?

This is not considered to be the wrong approach, as doing your own research and development does take up a lot of hours.

malcom

 

To display this graphically, we use Maloney’s 16% rule. 16% of the industry are “creators” who have invested in developing the correct methodology and techniques to operate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles safely. This can be split into innovators (2.5%), and early adopters (13.5%). The innovators are considered to be the hardware developers, manufacturer and software developers. And the early adopters are companies such as Costain who are working closely with the regulators and ‘innovators’ to bring this technology to market. The early adopters are taking on a risk in trying to implement a new unproven technology, but they understand the potential that this technology can bring in reducing costs and increasing safety standards. The chasm is considered to be the trial periods and operational safety cases conducted by the early adopters collaborating with the innovators (collectively known as the creators) which will create a path to prove if this technology is viable to the other 84% of the industry; this stage is known as “the tipping point”.

Referring back to your question, being part of the early/late majority and waiting for clear regulations and guidelines to be in place is not necessarily a negative, as you are ensuring that the technology has been trialed safely and to prove to upper management in the business that this technology is a successful tool in improving efficiency, safety, and driving down costs.

However, avoid being part of the “late mass” (16% of the industry), as you have potentially overspent on delivering a traditional service, or performed activities that have possibly put people at risk.

 

About the Author

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. He has also worked as the Executive Editor for ProVideo Coalition where he was first introduced to UAV technology. You can get in touch with him on Twitter: @jeremiahkarp

4 Responses

  1. calvin

    VLOS ?
    It was nice to see that I am operating normally as a hobbyist and the standard rules still apply. I am a paid up and insured member of the BMFA and that is a great place to start for all kinds of aero modelling.
    I was interested in doing some commercial stuff but really the cost of the license was prohibitive and IMO has crushed the lower end of the commercial industry before it has got started.

    Reply
  2. Simon

    A thought, if as a mapping company we are only using the imagery as raw data and not publishing (or in most work flows not even viewing apart from to add GCP’s) why do we have to adhere to the privacy laws. If we write into our opps manual that all images are used securely and offline and nto viewed. Then the images are raw data.. This i fear is a test case that needs to be heard. If won could open up the use of the drones considerably for mapping purposes.

    Reply
    • Jeremiah Karpowicz

      Sounds like it would be worth the effort to make that test case. My guess would be that it would run into opposition from people who fear where and how that raw data is being stored, since it could then be turned into images by someone, at some point. These are concerns that can be addressed, but all of those details would need to be laid out in a test case.

      Reply
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