Rather than being permanently closed to non-UAS air traffic, these two blocks are activated by “notices to airmen,” or Notams, when UAS activity is planned. Even during periods of activation, a crossing service for manned aircraft can be provided by local air traffic controllers.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) began drafting guidance for flying UAS in U.K. airspace around the year 2000, and published its first guidelines in June 2001. In May 2002, these were augmented and republished as Civil Aviation Publication (CAP) 722, the fifth edition of which was released in August.
CAP 722 is widely seen by other regulators as a benchmark. “From my perspective, especially when I was a regulator, CAP 722 was probably the most valuable document that we had out there,” said Doug Davis, former manager of the FAA's unmanned aircraft program office, at the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment conference here last month. “It was so mature, so well thought-out and well structured. It really was a global exemplary document.”
“I think the regulations are proportionate,” says Gerry Corbett, editor of CAP 722. “They're light-touch where they need to be, but they apply where they need to. It seems to be working fairly well at the moment.”
The CAA aims to process Aerial Work Permission applications within 28 days. Documentation and other requirements vary case-by-case, but applicants must show they propose to use an airworthy aircraft operated by accredited personnel. “They provide us with a sort of mini operations manual, and as long as the aircraft and the pilots are certified, and they operate in accordance with any stipulations we put in the permission, then that's fine. It's relatively simple,” he says.
The process by which the two Notam-activated airspace blocks were created is significantly lengthier. Corbett likens it to the planning procedure required to gain permission to construct a road or extend a building. The sponsor/applicant must conduct extensive consultation with all stakeholders—including those on the ground beneath any proposed flight path. Legitimate objections that could be made include environmental issues, such as pollution or noise.
Once submitted, a completed application will take at least six months to fully process, but the consultation —which has to be completed before the application is submitted—could take much longer. The Parc Aberporth airspace change took more than five years to enact.
CAP 722 stresses the need for unmanned systems to demonstrate equivalence to manned aircraft in safety, airworthiness and other key areas. It does not involve the regulator in a discussion about the nature of the work done by the aircraft. In the U.S., where the FAA has been mandated to establish six similar blocks of airspace as test sites for larger civil UAS, the regulator has become mired in public concerns over privacy.
In a Nov. 1 letter to Congress, acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta said the agency would fail to meet its deadline of the end of 2012 to identify the six sites. He cited the need to “appropriately address privacy concerns regarding the expanded use of UAS” as the primary reason for the delay.
“The headline's always been very simple: they've got to be safe to fly, and they've got to be flown safely,” says Corbett. “Obviously, there's a raft of complex stuff underneath that, but if the aircraft will stay in the air and can be operated appropriately, then [the CAA] does not really have any reason to stop it flying. We're not allowed to stop people going about their work: we can only stop things from happening on safety grounds,” he says. “It's for other people—other elements of the government—to stop things for other reasons.”