In November 2015, I was privileged to be invited and attend an internal training seminar hosted by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) at the NAV CANADA campus in Cornwall, Ont.
One of the more interesting sessions was a demonstration of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was custom built by a TSB investigator using common plans and 3D printers. The demonstration was impressive, showcasing the flexible nature of UAV operations and the video imaging was spectacular.
The demo provided some insight into potential future uses of customized UAVs, for investigative and other purposes. But how do we address the significant safety concerns that come with the ever-increasing presence of commercially available UAVs in our everyday lives?
I was struck by the fact that a government agency, demonstrating to a closed group, on a property that had restricted access still had to go through the considerable application process for a Special Flight Operations Certificate for a 30-minute demo. This, of course, was driven by the fact that the UAV was over 35 kilograms, but it was a layer of bureaucracy that is daunting to the uninitiated. Transport Canada (TC), the FAA, CAA, EASA – all major regulators are struggling to balance regulation versus flexibility; accountability against safety.
The numbers are staggering: in the U.S. alone, the FAA is estimating that more than 600,000 commercial drones will be operating in 2017, more than double the number of commercially registered airplanes! The FAA revealed new UAV rules earlier this year that took effect at the end of August and Transport Canada hopes to have updated regulations in place early next year.
Umbrella groups and industry associations have formed committees to help potential owners/operators through the regulatory maze including HAI, COPA, the Unmanned Safety Institute and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. So, there are ever increasing sources of information available to potential amateur and professional drone operators.
Safety and privacy concerns will drive the regulatory process as the number of drone-related events reported by commercial airlines increase and near misses become more common. A quick review of the CADORs database for 2016 shows 92 drone related reports already this year. These events include everything from near-hits to airspace violations and are a sober datapoint that all aircraft operators will be affected by the coming drone boom.
So, how do we manage the risks associated with UAS operations? The same safety management principles of hazard identification, risk assessments, quality assurance, and education surely will be relevant in this new space. Hazard identification, for instance, will need a paradigm shift: temperature effects on batteries, winds aloft versus winds on the ground, line-of-sight limitations and preventative maintenance are items that only scratch the surface of what will be needed to safely proceed.
Training and education will surely be a sticking point – how does TC enforce a training requirement for vehicles than can be bought online? And what exactly will be the training or testing requirement? In our world today, where government regulation is considered anathema to our daily lives, what is the best approach to introducing effective controls to assure the safety of our citizens?
In addition, how can we regulate the care and maintenance of these new “aircraft” so that the risk of failure due to mechanical or electronic failure is minimized? Data is scarce on this point but a recent report from researchers at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia showed that “ . . . technology issues were more often to blame for accidents in the sample, as opposed to human error.”
This buttresses the requirement for some form of rule regarding the maintenance of UAVs and how a drone is deemed to be serviceable. Aircraft pilots are trained for pre-flight inspections but are not qualified to maintain their aircraft – how will regulators address drone pre-flights versus drone maintenance?
And there are even more questions. For example, how will these developments affect our industry? Certainly, inspections of infrastructure, wind farms, bridges, pipelines, and transmission lines are all tasks that will be open to drone operators. First response for search and rescue (SAR) operations, and spare parts deliveries to remote worksites might also be in order.
As the capability of UAVs increases with better, more powerful batteries and stronger, custom designed “fuselages” become more common, the threat to the utility helicopter industry will grow. Let’s demand that this burgeoning industry adopt, from the “get-go,” sound safety management principles to minimize the risk to society.
Walter Heneghan is the vice-president for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.
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