New relaxed drone regulations will help the industry take off

CASA makes it easier for low risk flying of drones. Flickr/Richard Thorek, CC BY-NC-SA

Reece Clothier, RMIT University and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The Australian drone industry is set for a shake up following the announcement of a long-awaited relaxation of regulations on their operation.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says the amended regulations will come into effect in late September 2016, and with them comes the introduction of new categories of what are known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

The regulations define new low-risk commercial RPAS operations, which will allow operators of sub-2kg craft to fly without the need for an approval or licence.

A drone must be operated in daytime and within visual line of sight of the remote pilot to be classified as low risk. It must not be flown over populous areas and must be kept at least 30 metres from other people.

The drone cannot be flown greater than 130m above ground and it must not be flown within 5.5km of a controlled airport.

Commercial operators in this new category will have to register their operations with CASA on a yet-to-be live website.

Relaxed regulations will also apply to private owners of RPAS of up to 150kg. This is provided they only fly their drone over their private property and they do not operate their aircraft for direct commercial reward.

Why the change?

In 2002, CASA was the first in the world to regulate the operation of drones.

The regulations, contained in Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulation (CASR 1998), were long considered ground breaking. Much of the success of the Australian unmanned aircraft industry is owed to the flexible approach outlined in the regulations.

In 2007, there were fewer than 25 certified drone operators in Australia. By March 30, 2016, this number had grown to 500, with most operating small multi-rotor RPAS.

But with this rapid growth came the increasing need for regulatory reform. CASA recognised that the regulations needed to keep pace with increasingly capable technology, and the changing operational needs of the sector.

It also realised that processing an ever increasing number of regulatory applications was not sustainable.

Welcome news

The new changes will significantly reshape the drone industry.

Operators already licensed by CASA are expected to face increased competition from the new sub-2kg RPAS operators. These new operators will be able to provide equivalent aerial photography and inspection services without the same regulatory overhead.

Similarly, there will be an increase in the number of end-users choosing to own and operate their own internal RPAS capability instead of contracting existing RPAS service providers. Examples include the use of small inspection drones on building sites and the use of drones by tactical police units to assist them in hostage situations.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the current licensed RPAS operators. The standard operating conditions applicable to the new low-risk categories are restrictive.

Larger and more reliable drones will still be needed to carry bulky and more expensive payloads such as laser scanners, and hyper-spectral and cinema-quality cameras. These drones will still need to be operated by licensed operators.

Approval is still required for first person view (FPV) outdoor flying operations, where the remote pilot flies by means of a camera mounted on board the drone.

Similarly, autonomous drones, which operate without any input from a pilot, also require CASA approval on a case-by-case basis.

A large drone that will still require licensed operators for commercial use.
Stefan Hrabar/CSIRO/UAV Challenge

Research and educational institutions, such as universities, are also expected to benefit from the new categories, provided they operate their aircraft over their own property and in accordance with all other operational restrictions.

Previously, these institutions were subject to the same licensing requirements as commercial operators.

Hobby users

The amended regulations do not address concerns posed by the rapidly growing number of hobby drone users.

Regulations applicable to hobby or recreational users are contained in CASR 1998 Part 101.G, which is the subject of a separate CASA regulatory reform project.

There is growing concern over the risks hobby users pose to other aircraft and to members of the public. Some of these hobby users are not aware of the potential danger their drone may pose.

There have been numerous near misses of small drones with passenger aircraft in recent years. As the rate of these incidents increases, there is real concern that a drone will eventually be ingested into an aircraft engine causing catastrophic damage – or worse, an airline crash.

Others are well aware of the dangers their drones may pose to the public but they are deliberately mischievous anyway.

Education remains the only effective tool, with CASA leading a campaign to educate hobby users on the safe operation of their aircraft and the regulations that apply to them.

Without doubt, the release of the amended regulations will mark a significant milestone in the history of the Australian drone industry. They will help to sustain the safe and viable growth of the sector.

But the devil may still lie in the detail, of course, with the accompanying manual of standards yet to be released by CASA. The manual will contain more detailed requirements including those for remote pilot licences, flights in controlled airspace, and flights beyond visual line of sight of the pilot.

CASA’s exact interpretation of “Aerial Work” and “Commercial Reward” also remain unclear.

The Conversation

Reece Clothier, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is FPV drone racing?

Drone racing can be done indoors or out, as long as there are obstacles that make the course interesting. Porco 777

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The new sport of drone racing sees small but very fast robots fly around a circuit littered with obstacles. Unlike motorsports we are familiar with, the course of a drone race can be three-dimensional, with obstacles they need to fly around, under, over and even through.

The pilots stay on the ground but they fly with a view as if they were sitting in the aircraft. This technique is known as first-person-view, or FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

system-guide/”>FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

Drone racing began as an underground activity. Early races took place in empty car parks, and parking garages are still a favourite venue for drone racers.

Forests are also a perfect venue for drone racing enthusiasts, possibly inspired by the speeder bike chase scene from the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi.

An affordable sport

The secret of drone racing’s rapid development lies in the technology needed to participate. Nearly all of the required components are relatively cheap and quite accessible. This is the exact opposite of most motor sport.

The main elements of a drone racing set-up are the drone itself, an on-board video camera, a decent video transmitter, a pair of immersive video goggles and a set of remote controls. All of these components are now just one internet order away.

A cheap set-up could be assembled for a few hundred dollars. Unlike Formula 1 car racing, you can build a racer at home and enter yourself into a race competition. This is something for the masses to actually do, which is an exciting prospect for the armchair sports enthusiast.

Even a paper plane FPV drone is now available. You fold a paper plane, just like you did when you were a kid, and you then install the motors, autopilot and camera system. You use your smart phone in a box as your FPV goggles.

Setting up a homemade drone for the next round.
Stefan Hrabar, Author provided

Safety

The main reason drone racing is cheap is because there are no people on-board and hence the drones are very small. Some of them are tiny; they only need to be large enough to carry the video camera, battery and some electronics.

This also means that the sport is not overly hazardous to those in the immediate area. Even though the drones race up to speeds approaching 150km/h outdoors, indoors their speed is more limited due to the proximity of obstacles, and they typically weigh only hundreds of grams. Some of these drones fit into the palm of your hand.

The nature of the courses also means that the chance of impact with the humans controlling the drones or spectators is quite low. The courses are deliberately set up that way.

When flying outside, drone racers must operate according to their country’s specific airspace regulations, which differ among nations. Some are up-to-date and consider the use of drones, while others are more outdated and the use of drones is complex and sometimes even impossible.

The motivation for strict controls is to keep people not involved in the flying out of harm’s way and also reducing the risk that a drone could fly away and pose a serious hazard for a regular aircraft carrying people. All regulators are grappling with how drones will regulated as people get more into FPV racing.

When racing indoors, there are no air space regulations for drone racers to worry about. This is one of the reasons that racing around empty car parks, warehouses and office buildings is popular.

Chasing the money

The rapid rise of drone racing is already showing that this will be a big money sport. In 2015, Chad Nowak from Brisbane, Australia, was crowned thefirst world champion of drone racing.

His first prize was A$15,000 and he had only been drone racer for a year. He has now moved to the US to be closer to the centre of the big prize money drone racing scene. As the sport grows, it is inevitable that leagues will form, sponsorship will be attracted, and there will be regional and national champions.

In January 2016, an organisation called the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced that it had secured A$8 million to run an international FPV drone racing series.

Like modern Formula 1 racing, where the viewer at home can see a live video stream from the cars, DRL says that it will give viewers a customisable view from the drones. Other rival leagues and events are forming as interest grows.

And just like most existing motorsports, unfortunately, it is clear that drone racing is starting out with major gender inequality issues. The DRL has one female pilot out of the 17 listed.

An innovative drone racing group in the Gold Fields of Western Australia is trying to use the new sport to attract tourists to their region. Their videos from drones racing over spectacular desert-like landscapes are reminiscent of pod racing scene in Star Wars The Phantom Menace.

Drone racing is such a new activity that it is hard to predict if it will become a major sport to rival established individual racing sports. It may be quickly superseded by the next big thing in tech. Jet pack racing anyone?

The Conversation

Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.