CASA Questions the Safety of Drones


CASA LogoThe world of Unmanned Aerial Surveillance has come a long way. Just a few short years ago, the thought of having a remote control ‘drone’ as part of police and security accoutrements was beyond cost feasibility.


Now, the South Australian Police have done just that. Not only are Government agencies, at all levels, adopting their use (from conducting surveys and inspections to responding to crime and emergencies), the public are getting their hands on them to take amateur aerial footage or to check out their neighbour’s backyard. Small units cost less than $100.


Control systems will allow pilots to fly using smart devices – meaning most amateur techies will think they can be instant adopters. Naturally, already there have been operators misusing them, causing danger to not only the public and infrastructure on the ground, but to airborne commercial aircraft as well.


Australia was the first country in the world to regulate Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), with the first operational regulation for unmanned aircraft in 2002. In early July 2014, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) used the Sir Richard Williams Foundation Lecture to highlight the new rules and regulations the Civil Aviation Safety Authority would have to put in place for RPA. There are very slight differences between RPA, Drones or UAVs, if any at all.


The CASA working group is looking at developing a special set of regulatory provisions that will allow the use of RPA in emergency situations, in a responsive manner whilst operating safely. CASA supports the belief that RPA can provide a very valuable benefit for emergency services and have the potential to provide emergency services in the form of fire spotting, for example using Defence RPAs, the Heron, the Shadow 200 or the Scan Eagle.


One of the first concerns CASA has with the RPA is how easy the public can get their hands on one. CASA acknowledges, if misused, the RPA can be very dangerous, so much so that it can destroy an Airbus’s jet engine. A near miss between a RPA and a passenger jet at Perth Airport in 2010, demonstrated why CASA is so concerned. In that incident, the RPA operator flew within 30 metres of a Pacific Blue 737-800, and was caught in the wake turbulence, causing it to spiral towards the ground. This incident could have been a lot worse than it initially appears to have been.


On 2 October 2013, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) filmed its collision with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and was found the following day. CASA, naturally, took this event very seriously and initially alerted Counter-Terrorism officers. Police later determined the RPA was being used recreationally by Mr Edward Prescott, who was in Sydney as part of the support crew for the Rhianna Tour. Mr Prescott said that he did not fly that close the bridge, intentionally.


As a safety precaution, CASA advises that RPA should not be operated within 30 metres of people and away from large structures like bridges, buildings, and crowds. CASA also suggests that owners should always contact the local City or Shire Council to question what airspace is available or allowed to fly in. In the Sydney Harbour Bridge case, the airspace around the bridge was restricted for all aircraft, including light aircraft.


CASA has questioned whether RPA are safe for use in the civilian world. With the capability of flying low in residential areas, as well as high into busy airspace – and with an estimated 100 RPA taking to the skies each week, CASA needs to respond quickly with laws that are designed to prevent serious injuries or crashes that may occur. At the moment, there are rules for hobbyists, who are the most common pilots, and do not need any training, or need to register their light drones. They are required to:


  • Fly below 400 feet;
  • Operate only in daylight; and
  • Stay well away from airports and highly populated areas.


With the growing popularity of RPA, globally, they are going to develop a strong and multi-diverse market. A 2013 study by Teal Group suggests that the US defence force will spend more than double RPA expenditures during the next decade – from US$5.2 Billion annually, to US$11.6 Billion, spending more than US$89 Billion all together during the next decade.

CASA has also established a process to obtain an Operating Certificate to fly a RPA. The number of certificates being issued shows the growth and demand for RPAs in Australia. In February 2012, there were 15 total Operator’s Certificates, that doubled the following year, then rose to more than 40 in 2014. One of the certification requirements is to sit a similar exam to those of an aspiring pilot and equates to 90 percent of a pilot’s course. So, evidently, getting a certificate isn’t the simplest of tasks.


The more commonly available RPA are the types that weigh less than seven kilograms. These are inexpensive and can be bought in retail or online stores. These may be flown without applying for an operating certificate. There are, however, many variants of unmanned vehicles. For example, the US Military has a ranking system to select the more appropriate UAV for the job at hand. Ranking criteria ranges from Low Altitude (Tier I) UAVs to High Altitude (Tier III or IV) variants. The diversity of drones available today, is a clear indicator of how this technology is progressing and will continue to evolve.


CASA has acknowledged the use of RPA will continue to expand as technologies and performance characteristics lead to longer flight durations, covert operational capabilities, and reduced operational costs. As RPA develops and mature they will naturally serve many sectors, such as law-enforcement, security, agriculture and environmental sectors. CASA has also reasonably foreseen RPA roles which could expand to include more complex operations and eventually, possibly even carrying passengers and conceivably routine unmanned commercial cargo flights. For many entering the RPA and UAV industry, it may indeed be only a blue sky from here.