How much control over UAVs in New Zealand?

An article appeared in the Dominion Post (New Zealand) this weekend, asking about the level of control over drone use in New Zealand.  The article is well written, but in my opinion, the reporter had an axe to grind.  However, so too did some of the people interviewed.  Unfortunately, the article made a number of unsubstantiated claims about UAV operators, such as "many don't even read the instructions before they launch their machine".  

The Civil Aviation Authority has made a serious attempt to regulate the use of UAVs, both by hobbyists and commercial organisations, without being too restrictive and stifling development of an industry that is coming, like it or not.

The idea of ID chipping UAVs is quite a good one and might be practical.  The popular argument, repeated again in this article,  that planes have "see and avoid" technology that enables them to spot nearby aircraft is a serious misrepresentation.  Certainly, commercial airliners have Traffic  Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), but such systems are not normally fitted to smaller general aviation aircraft, such as Cessnas or Pipers.  (Interestingly, FLARM - flight alarm - is often fitted to gliders, which may fly very close together when taking part in competitions).  The development of detect-and-avoid equipment small enough to be put into an aircraft as small as a DJI Phantom, probably the most popular multi-rotor UAV worldwide, will be a major advance in ensuring the safety of general aviation.  Unfortunately, this development is unlikely to happen in the near future and adoption by owners of the hundreds of thousands of multi-rotors already in use is doubtful.

This author is still strongly of the opinion that education of UAV owners is the key to ensuring safety of other airspace users and those on the ground.

Comment on Drone vs Airbus A320 incident

Much has been made of the reported sighting of a drone at about 6000ft by the pilot of an Airbus A320 on climb-out from Christchurch International Airport last week.

Not surprisingly, the New Zealand Airline Pilots' Association has expressed alarm that uninformed persons can buy a UAV and operate near an airport, "seemingly with little idea of the seriousness of their actions".  This is a perfectly reasonable concern - though UAVs generally do not fly particularly fast and may weigh only a few kilograms, a jet aircraft could be flying at 150 to 170kt - and ingestion of a UAV by an engine, or impact at such speed could seriously damage the aircraft or the pilots it if penetrated the windscreen.  Regulatory bodies may now be tempted to impose more restrictive conditions on all model aircraft in response to the perceived risk of collision.

Unfortunately, this particular genie is out of the bottle.  Many people have purchased multi rotor drones on the Internet and the FAA has warned that there could be a million drones under the Christmas trees of the nation this year.  No amount of regulation is going to stop some of these machines being flown in areas where more responsible pilots would not fly, while licensing is not going to help - if you are going to use a gun illegally, you don't buy a firearms licence.  Registration and marking of the drones will not help much either - they are too small to carry registration letters readable from another aircraft.  Probably the only approach likely to have an impact is education of drone operators and the use of simple posters and comic strip style information delivery to purchasers of model aircraft of all types.

The new CAA regulations in New Zealand have taken a reasonable approach, more clearly defining what is permitted under the Rule Part 101.E for model aircraft and Airways and its partners have made available a website called Airshare for UAV flight planning and information exchange.  A further Rule, Part 102, has set out the requirements for commercial operation of unmanned aerial systems.  Provided that UAV and model aircraft operators continue to obey the new rules, there will be no conflict with full-size aircraft.  Of course, you can't legislate against stupidity and there will always be someone who wants to see how high the aircraft can fly.

Some commercial drone operators have jumped on the bandwagon and called for even more restrictions on hobby operators, but they are not taking into account the capabilities of modern consumer-level drones.  Suggesting that an enthusiast might only be able to fly his or her drone up to 200ft before losing control is somewhat condescending towards serious aircraft modellers and is just not realistic.   Even cheap autopilots are capable of flying the aircraft to waypoints out of sight of the operator and returning to the launch point.

As to whether the drone reported could have reached 6000ft, there is insufficient information in the various reports to reach a conclusion.  Was it a multi rotor or a fixed wing aircraft?  A multi rotor must support its weight by generating thrust from the propellers, which uses up battery power at a high rate.  On the other hand, a fixed wing aircraft supports its weight with the lift generated by its wings, so, under normal flight conditions, battery power consumption is considerably less.  In January 2014, I flew our Fox fixed wing UAV up to 5500ft AGL in the Taylor Dry Valley in Antarctica.  The purpose was to photograph some of the ridges surrounding our campsite.  The flight was conducted with full approval from Mac Centre, the flight control centre for Antarctica, located at McMurdo Base.  In reaching this altitude, we ran the batteries down to our minimum safe reserve and had only a few minutes of useful photography time, gliding down to our landing point with the motor off.  A multi rotor probably could not have achieved this climb.

What would be the point in flying a UAV at 6000ft?  In most cases, photographs and videos taken from this height would be of little use.  When we conduct surveying operations with a UAV, we generally fly at 250 to 350 ft AGL, to get good resolution in the images, so well clear of general aviation operations.

So, we have to accept that the A320 pilot did indeed see some flying object at 6000ft, but as to whether it was a multi rotor or fixed wing UAV, or even another type of craft, such as a microlight, we have no further information.  Of one thing I am sure: no serious UAV operator would fly so high close to an airport because of the risk to other aircraft and the low resolution of resulting images.

The comments above are my own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Auckland University of Technology UAV operations group, or the University itself.  The post has been edited to resolve the missing part of the penultimate paragraph.

New regulations for drone operation in New Zealand cause consternation

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as “drones”, are becoming more readily available and affordable.  The vast majority of privately owned UAVs are used by hobbyists for taking aerial photographs and videos, or are flown just for fun.  Multi-rotor UAVs have also found many applications from photographing real estate to scientific research and monitoring of agriculture.

Unfortunately, there are increasing numbers of reports from around the world of misuse of multi-rotors.  In some cases, drones have been flown close to airliners, putting at risk passengers and aircraft.  Privacy issues have also arisen, with property owners raising concerns that aerial cameras have been used in peeping Tom activities.

In most countries, aviation regulations were written long before the advent of UAVs, and regulatory bodies are struggling to catch up with the new technology.  UAVs have therefore been regarded as model aircraft and required to comply with the appropriate regulations - in the case of New Zealand, these are found in the Civil Aviation Authority Rules under Part 101 sub-part E.  However, commercial operation of UAVs is not covered by such regulations.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority has written amendments to Part 101, with changes to sub-part E coming into force on 1st August 2015.  The most significant changes are the requirement (i) not to fly in airspace above persons who have not given consent for the aircraft to operate in that airspace; and (ii) above property unless prior consent has been obtained from any persons occupying that property or the property owner.  These aspects of the amendments appear to be more about privacy issues than about safety of other airspace users.  (In an interesting “odd spot” moment, a multi rotor operator flew his aircraft over the Palmerston North Square to photograph the ANZAC Day celebrations for the City Council.  Even under the old Part 101.E this would probably have been contrary to the regulations.  A complaint led to a visit by CAA inspectors for a meaningful discussion).

The aircraft must also be operated within visual line of sight of the operator or observer.  This last requirement, though present in the original Part 101.E, restricts the use of UAVs with autopilots offering programmable waypoints.  Many multi rotor and fixed wing UAVs are equipped with such autopilots, which also provide emergency landing or return-to-base procedures in case of loss of control signal.  They are ideally suited to surveying larger areas, such as on farms.

Not surprisingly, these changes have upset a number of hobbyists, who, up to now, have flown small model aircraft in parks and reserves.  Typically, these models weigh only a few hundred grams and are powered by small electric motors.  Larger aircraft are normally flown at designated club flying sites.  However, no minimum gross mass is specified for any type of model aircraft, so strictly, even the tiniest balsa chuck glider is caught in this catch-all rule.  The requirement to obtain permission from the property occupier probably means that no model aircraft can be flown in parks or reserves without the express permission of the local council.  This has already caused concern and confusion - in several reported instances, the local body has said that they have no policy on flying model aircraft and “don’t know how to grant permission”.  This suggests that CAA did not consult with local authorities before writing the Rules.

Consider the following scenario:  an enthusiast is driving close to a river after heavy rain.  He or she comes to a river bridge where floating objects are crashing into the bridge piles.  The multi-rotor is in the back of the car and this scene will make exciting footage.  However, permission must be obtained to fly.  Who is the responsible authority for the area?  Can permission be obtained with a phone call to the local council or NZTA?  Almost certainly not.  So the enthusiast will either miss the photo opportunity, or will break the law by flying without permission.

This raises another issue.  NZCAA doesn’t have the manpower to police the new regulations, while local authorities probably have neither the manpower or willingness to police them.

It is, of course, possible to get around some of these difficulties by obtaining an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate.  However, this is not a simple task and will have significant cost; application for the certificate will require payment of two hours at the standard hourly rate of $284 with suitable adjustment upon issue of the certificate.  The exposition required as part of the documentation to be supplied is appropriate for a commercial aviation operation, but will be totally beyond the means of a model aircraft enthusiast.

Of course, sometimes common sense prevails.  This author requested clearance from the local council to continue flying small radio controlled aircraft in the local Domain.  The request was granted within 24 hours, with only minor restrictions.

How to shorten the life of your multi rotor

A recent article published by National Geographic included a video shot from DJI Phantom quadrotor  aerial cameras.  Sam Cossman and a team of explorers flew the Phantoms over the active Marum Crater volcano in Vanuatu.  The caldera is 12km wide, exceedingly hot, and contains toxic and corrosive gases.

The footage is spectacular, but two multi rotors were lost in collecting the images.  It is well worthwhile following the link above to view the video.  Cossman explains that the images will assist scientists in understanding the volcano.

Cossman claims that there is microbial life on the rocks close to the boiling lava.  When the rock cools to below 120 C it is considered to be a habitable environment, and the scientists are very interested in studying the colonisation of the newly cooled rocks.

Yet another interesting item to come out of the National Geographic video is the 3-D model of the caldera produced from thousands of images processed by an unnamed software package.  The AUT UAV team uses Pix4Mapper to produce orthomosaics of their images for further study.

Currently, the greatest risk to the longevity of our multi rotors is the training of new pilots and application of the technology near to trees or bodies of water!

A positive report on the use of "drones"

Recently, the number of negative reports on the activities of drone users has increased, mostly in regard to near misses with commercial aircraft.

A new post in SUAS News describes the use of a DJI Phantom Vision 2+ to survey the site of a collision between an F-16 fighter jet and a Cessna 150. The pilot of the jet was able to eject, but unfortunately, the pilots of the Cessna were both killed.

The Phantom multi rotor was flown at 30 metres above the swampy crash site and collected just 87 images, which were stitched on-site with Pix4Mapper, providing the search teams with an othomosaic at 2cm per pixel resolution. This could not have been achieved with a conventional helicopter because of the surface disturbance from the rotor downwash.

It appears that this application of the DJI Phantom greatly assisted the search teams. You can read the full story from SUAS News at:

More unhelpful publicity

An article posted in the New Zealand Herald on 21st June last week described a drone delivery of auto parts over Auckland, between Penrose and Mt Wellington, a distance of around 2 km.  Fastway Couriers is a delivery company that normally uses trucks or vans.  They apparently teamed up with Flirtey, a UAV company based in Sydney.  The delivery of the auto parts was claimed as a New Zealand first in the race to deliver parcels by drone, as first suggested by Amazon.  The article also included a publicity video depicting the delivery.
All very exciting, but as far as this author is aware, the whole operation was illegal.
Currently, all UAV operations are covered by NZCAA rules Part 101, which covers gliders, parasails etc. and model aircraft.  This rule Part is to cover recreational use only and limits model aircraft operations to not more than 400ft and not beyond line of sight of the operator. 
Many UAV operators, including the AUT UAV team, find the limitation of line of sight rather frustrating, particularly as we have a very sophisticated programmable autopilot.  However, those are the current rules under which we operate; publicity stunts like this can only antagonise the CAA rule makers and give UAV operators a bad name in the eyes of the public.

A fake, but not helpful

I saw this link yesterday:

The video clip has been shown to be a fake, produced by a special effects worker, but it went viral.  It's cool, but not helpful.  It has now reinforced the idea in the minds of the general public that UAVs (we don't use the word 'drone'!) are dangerous.

Of course, UAVs in the wrong hands and used in the wrong environment can be dangerous.  New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority is currently writing new rules to cover the operation of RPAS.  This sort of thing is going to make the authorities around the world look even harder at controlling the operation of UAVs

Welcome to our new waterproof drone

The new waterproof quadcopter has arrived and is ready for action.  Unfortunately, we were unable to fly out of the box as the transmitter/receiver combo did not bind, so we replaced the receiver with a high performance Spektrum and it worked perfectly.  This new quadcopter will be used for our marine mammal studies and seabird island mapping projects.  We welcome her to our fleet!


Coastal mapping project

We recently took our UAV research group to Waiheke Island to map some offshore islands and coastal areas using our Blade 3 QX350.  We are planning a sortie to sea bird islands in the next few months and needed to test our methods on some nearby, easy to access locations.  We conducted a rapid analysis using Pix4d Mapper in the field and some of the RGB camera results are below. We were encouraged by the results from only 15 minutes of flight time and approx 500 images. 

Figure 1: Our flight path with the point cloud behind it. 

 Figure 2: The point cloud with showing the islands in 3D.