December 31, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: National Aeronautical Center
Angus Batey London
Achieving a legal framework to permit routine flights of unmanned aircraft in unsegregated airspace has been the goal of both industry and regulators worldwide for some years—but efforts to harmonize operating rules are moving slowly. Some nations are creating relatively permissive environments for commercial UAS, while others—most notably the U.S.—still effectively keep their airspace closed to civilian-operated remotely piloted aircraft.
Some nations allow UAS operations with hardly any questions asked; others “require an application very similar to something you might have for commercial airline operations,” Mark Sickling, of Scottish company Cyberhawk, told the Royal Aeronautical Society's UAS Operations conference here in September. Other countries do not permit any commercial UAS flights at all, he said.
Sickling, a former Royal Air Force Reaper pilot, is flight operations manager for Cyberhawk, which provides inspection services to the oil and gas industry. The company earlier this year claimed the world's first flight of an unmanned aircraft from an offshore drilling platform in the North Sea.
“We're really lucky in the U.K.,” he said. “We have an established framework, and it's pretty flexible on what it allows us to do. Once you start moving away from the U.K., things become far less clear. Different countries have different rules within Europe, and [in] the Middle East rules tend to be incredibly complex. As for the U.S., commercial operation of small UAVs at the moment is strictly forbidden.”
But U.S. airspace restrictions prevent CyberHawk using its U.K. experience to break into a “potentially massive market for industrial inspection, particularly with the number of refineries and production facilities,” Sickling said.
In the U.K., airspace integration has progressed along two parallel paths. For unmanned aircraft up to 20 kg (44 lb.), flown for commercial purposes under line-of-sight control or within 400 ft. of a building or public place, a permission-to-fly system has been created. To date, over 130 of these Aerial Work Permissions have been issued, covering operations ranging from a single flight in a single location on a single date, to multiple flights from various locations over up to a year.
Meanwhile, two blocks of airspace have been created where larger UAS can be flown. One is around the former RAF base at Parc Aberporth in Wales, now home to the National Aeronautical Center (NAC). The other links the military firing range at Salisbury Plain with Boscombe Down, the U.K. Defense Ministry's aerial test and evaluation facility.