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Dan Nixon

Code Monkey, Electronics Engineer, Mad Scientist.

On the EASA drone regulations

By Dan Nixon on 2016-10-01

I've just had a chance to have a decent read through the new regulations set out by the European Aviation Safety Agency regarding the operation of unmanned aircraft ("drones") and find it not particularly surprising that many oversights seem to have been made throughout.

What is a "drone"

My first (and most serious) issue is the inability to correctly classify different types of aircraft.

These regulations appear to be tailored towards unmanned aircraft that are tailored towards fully autonomous flight (by means of an autopilot) and there is sufficient evidence provided in the explanatory notes that accompany the new regulations (see quote below) that they are aware of the differences between such aircraft and conventional "model aircraft" which are typically flown by hobbyists as part of a club.

"The option of excluding ‘model aircraft’ was seriously envisaged taking into account their good safety record. We had several attempts to make a definition that could accurately separate classical ‘model aircraft’ from unmanned aircraft. This has proven difficult as a ‘model aircraft’ is indeed an unmanned aircraft, and the variety of model aircraft goes far beyond manually controlled fixed wing aircraft." source

The model aircraft hobby (as recognised by the EASA) has had a very good safety record and as pilots that fly such aircraft enjoy doing so we tend to take sufficient precautions to protect our hobby, this includes flying in a manner that is safe. The fact that the hobby has managed to exist for a significant length of time without requiring such restrictive regulations only demonstrates this. The fact that the hobby now includes multirotor aircraft is irrelevant in this case.

Going back to the main point, it seems obvious as to what the distinction between a "drone" and a "model aircraft" is; a drone has autopilot whereas a "model aircraft" has flight stabilisation.

It is important to remember that many of the incidents involving multirotor aircraft have been with aircraft that use an autopilot, this can often also play a part in causing the incident (a common issue being activating a "return to home" feature when the home position is not set). It is equally as important to remember that autopilots can be fitted to almost any type of aircraft (including fixed wings and helicopters), therefore I appreciate that the decision to limit these new regulations to multirotors only has not been made.

The safety of a model aircraft

I have conventionally assumed the point at which flight stabilisation ends being anything more than maintaining the angle of any axis using an accelerometer (a mode more commonly used on multirotors and helicopters.

In this mode there should never be a situation that the pilot is not in control of the aircraft and therefore is constantly evaluating if it is safe to continue flying as they are. For instance, when I fly in public accessible areas I always fly such that having to drop the aircraft (due to a fault, signal issue, etc) would not result in the aircraft hitting said person.

By always knowing what the aircraft is doing and always being aware of the surrounding area it is very easy to fly a conventional model aircraft safely.

The safety of an autonomous aircraft

(Here I refer to operators of entry level aircraft. Average Joe that has never flown an aircraft in his life that has just bought a DJI Phantom, not commercial and knowledgeable operators)

Autonomous aircraft (i.e. those controlled, even partially, by an autopilot) have made the model aircraft hobby more accessible by reducing the level of skill and practice required to pilot an unmanned aircraft safely.

A very common issue observed with autopilot enabled multirotors is lack of operator knowledge about the aircraft prior to use, for example it is very common to see a pilot take off in a flight stabilised mode (where they have manual control over the pitch, roll and yaw) then activate return to home and find that either the aircraft collided with an obstruction between it's position and the home position or that the home position was not set correctly due to lack of GPS lock on take off.

I could go into more detail here, however as I agree with the requirement to regulate such aircraft it would be redundant information.

Conclusion

These regulations suck.

Whoever wrote them has a very limited idea about the model aircraft hobby and have been too lazy to fully educate themselves.

TL;DR:

  • All unmanned aircraft require training.
  • A ban on privately built aircraft (outside of A0) wouldn't change anything.
  • None of this is actually feasible to enforce.

(I had planned to write much more about this that I have but several other blogs already cover the majority of the other points I would have raised)

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