Public awareness of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as ‘drones’, has taken off since their military use in Afghanistan and other current areas of conflict.
However, unintended civilian casualties have led to a clamour of condemnation that’s painted them as unseen killing machines wreaking havoc from above.
Given that perception, is talk of their use outside conflict areas just blue sky thinking? That was a topic for recent roundtable discussions among senior figures in the aerospace and aviation industries.
And the conclusion? A resounding ‘yes’, tempered with a general acknowledgement that there are major hurdles to be overcome before UAVs find their place in civilian skies.
When they do, it’s likely to be as part of a UAS, or Unmanned Aircraft System, where the flying hardware is only one element of a more complete operational package.
But that’s a little way down the line as, for now, UAVs in the UK are quite literally struggling to get off the ground.
Current CAA regulations, mean that any UAV above a certain size, does not have permission to fly in controlled airspace, leaving only one site near Cardigan Bay in Wales where they can take off, which is land owned by West Wales airport.
If this issue was not fundamental enough, there are other basic questions to be answered, such as ‘Is there even a market in Britain for UAVs?’ or ’Would developing them for commercial use just be creating a technological white elephant, interesting to have, but something that no one needs?’
The use to which drones have been put in Afghanistan also means that ‘selling’ drones to the British, at least initially, would require more than a little subtle PR if certain sections of the press and other vested interests aren’t to tether UAVs to the ground with alarmist stories about the ‘spy in the sky’ and breaches of civil liberties.
There would also be the much more valid concern about the ability to control unmanned aircraft in populated neighbourhoods where they could do damage, causing injury and even death.
Safety is of course the Civil Aviation Authority’s remit, and while current regulations may limit their use, it seems that the CAA has no particular anti-UAV agenda.
However, as all air space in the UK is for civil use, their job is to ensure that any UAV taking to the air does not cause safety issues to either those on the ground or other aircraft. To that end, they won’t be looking to change their regulations to meet the needs of UAVs, but instead will expect unmanned vehicles to achieve an equivalent level of safety to any manned aircraft.
Meeting the airworthiness standards set by the CAA will be no mean task when the level of complexity in a UAV is far higher than in a similarly sized light aircraft.
As one delegate at the roundtable discussions described it, ‘You’re talking about a system complexity equivalent to an Airbus A380 in an airframe the size of a Cessna.’
But a UAV could be a cost-effective solution for mountain rescue, monitoring of criminal activity, aerial surveying, crop spraying and checking livestock. Thus, there is potentially a massive market, not just in the UK but globally, meaning that UAVs are unlikely to remain grounded for too much longer.
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