drone

Editor’s Note: Here’s a story from our archives we feel is relevant even today and deserves your attention.

In the past, when drones were primarily tools of the military or exotic toys for hobbyists and enthusiasts with serious engineering skill, there were relatively few concerns about safety and how they would share public airspace. In recent years, drones have become far more widely available. Last year, they were the Christmas present of choice among both the young and young and heart.

It should come as no surprise that civil aviation authorities around the world have been keeping an eye on the increasing ubiquity of civilian drones. In the last few years, they have been expending a significant amount of effort to develop a framework for the safe integration of drones into the public airspace.

Managing public airspace for passenger jets

From the outside, it can feel like a problem that is easily solved with existing technology. Consider the world of manned aircraft and passenger jets: over the last five decades, manned aviation has matured tremendously. We generally consider modern airplanes to be a safe mode of transportation. Notwithstanding recent events, the passenger safety record for the airline industry has been good enough. Any aviation incidents are picked over with a fine toothed comb for lessons that can be learned to make air travel safer.
The aviation industry has arrived at a system based largely on air traffic control centers and designated flight zones and corridors. Transponders allow individual airliners to signal their locations to air traffic controllers; this supports a delicate aerial ballet that ensures each aircraft gets its turn to take off and land safely. Unfortunately, recent events have shown that this is not sufficient to handle every possible scenario. Meanwhile, flight corridors approaching and leaving airports are often carefully selected to avoid overflying major population areas. Airspace is also carved up into zones with different levels of monitoring and oversight (and correspondingly, different rules on what you can do with and without a permit).

Up till now, drones have been largely deployed by militaries, and even then, in small enough numbers that general aviation frameworks have accommodated them without much trouble. The rise of drones for civilian applications changes this dynamic.

Early days for drone technological standards

As we look ahead to a future where drones are deployed for a multitude of applications, it is clear that we will need a way to manage and monitor unmanned aircraft. The system we eventually arrive at globally will likely take their cue from existing frameworks for managing manned aircraft. There may well be a single air traffic control system for all aircraft, manned or unmanned, with specific regulations and operating parameters for each class of aerial vehicle.

However, consumer drones today do not carry the transponders that manned aircraft use. These signalling units are still too expensive and heavy to be mounted to the current generation of civilian drones. Tracking the exact location of each drone is not feasible at the moment.
We also lack a drone version of the regulatory framework that dictates how manned aircraft can be built and put in the air. Buying a hobbyist-grade drone today is a simple matter of stepping into a toy store or getting online. What’s more, the technically inclined among us can easily purchase the individual components (motors, propellers, controller circuits) and assemble a drone. In fact, we have seen enthusiast-built drones consisting of motors and propellers mounted on anything from wooden frames to Tupperware containers.

Taking sensible interim steps

While a permanent solution is being worked out, the first sensible step is to implement a permit-based framework with clear guidelines on allowed and prohibited drone activities. This is the approach that civil aviation authorities have taken in the US, Australia and now Singapore. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) recently rolled out new rules – from 1 June onwards, commercial operators and hobbyists taking on certain activities will have to obtain approval from CAAS before they can fly legally.
Under this new framework, there are two types of permits that can be issued: for operators, and for activities. Operator permits are issued after a pilot has demonstrated his or her competence with a specific drone model. For each new drone model that the pilot wishes to fly, he or she must go once again demonstrate competence in operation. The evaluation procedure extends beyond just the ability to control the drone in the air, but also looks at whether proper procedures are in place for risk assessment and management.
Activity permits are issued for a particular flight (or set of flights). CAAS has indicated that block activity permits may be issued – if the same activity is being carried out using the same drone model but on different days and times, there is the possibility of receiving a single permit approval for all those flights. The existence of block activity permits demonstrates the thought that CAAS has put into rationalising the amount of administrative hassle that needs to go into the permit approval process.

Commercial operators must lead the way

As a leading commercial drone solutions provider in the region, Garuda Robotics takes all necessary steps to comply with aviation safety requirements. Having received our operator permit in the first wave of approvals after the new permit regime kicked in on 1 June, we continue to make safety the highest priority when providing drone services to our clients.
Look out for Mark and the Garuda Robotics team at Echelon Asia Summit on June 23 – 24. They’ll be running a showcase at our conference ‘Drone Corner’ alongside HopeTechnik and hobbyists Drone Matters. Besides drones, hardware enthusiasts can also check out startups exhibiting their IoT, 3D printing and Smart Home products. Pick up your tickets for Echelon here!