It’s been a long time coming but finally, the new drone regulations that will bring the UK and EU countries in line with each other, came into force on the 1st January this year.
While this is a welcome change to the regulations and shows how far the industry has come in such a short space of time, as is often the case with regulations, the devil is in the detail.
The new regulations do away with the distinction between commercial pilots and hobbyists and instead focus on the type of drone used and defining what the flight risks are. Under the old rules, professional drone operators such as Iprosurv, had to have something called Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) but that will be replaced with an Operational Authorisation.
The new regulations are broken down into three distinct categories, open, specific and certified, all of which have varying pilot competency requirements. I could go into all the detail of the regulations here but there are better qualified people to explain them and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website is a good place to start for my fellow regulation nerds.
What I do want to dig into and hopefully provide some clarity around is the perception that these new rules blur the boundaries a between commercial providers and hobbyists. There is a perception that once the new rules are in place, anyone with a drone can get it registered, apply for their A2 Certificate of Competence, complete the online training course and sally forth into the commercial realm.
Strictly speaking, they could but anyone considering that or considering hiring such an operator to conduct an aerial drone survey, needs to be aware of the limitations that still apply. For example, under the transitional arrangements, a drone pilot operating under the minimum A2 Certificate of Competence must maintain a horizontal distance of at least 50 metres from any uninvolved individual or occupied building, severely limiting the drone’s scope and effectiveness.
In addition, there are limitations of the type of drone such operators could use to conduct drone inspections. Under an A2 certificate, the drone must weigh less than 4kg which limits the amount and nature of any equipment it can carry, again, limiting its effectiveness.
So, from my perspective, the idea that these rule changes are going to revolutionise and open up the commercial drone market are a little wide of the mark. These changes are undoubtedly important – they bring a much-needed focus on safety and professionalism to our sector which will, in time, normalise the use of drones in public and commercial life.
Which is a great thing as the more we do to introduce drones to society in a safe and controlled way, the more everyone will feel the benefits they can bring. But it is incumbent upon everyone operating in the drone sector and those companies who use our services, to be very clear about what these new regulations mean.
For me, it is absolutely clear that the man (or woman) on the street won’t suddenly be able to replicate what we have been doing at Iprosurv over the last six years. Why? There are many reasons but chief among them are:
We have worked hard to become a key stakeholder with the CAA and to secure operational exemptions that a single operator can’t replicate
The limitations around line of sight and distance to individuals or occupied buildings really limits the operational capabilities of the pilot
The kind of lightweight drones that can operate under an open category A2 certificate, are limited in terms of the drone platforms they can utilise
Lighter drones are also much more susceptible to changes in the weather and more vulnerable to mid-flight drift in stronger winds
Data security, when storing or transferring the outputs of a flight, cannot be guaranteed by a single operator in the same way it can by an established, professional firm like Iprosurv
Everyone in Iprosurv’s network of pilots has to undergo rigorous training and testing, the kind of education that cannot be replicated by an online questionnaire
These are just a few of the considerations any company thinking about using drones must take into account, whether they are outsourcing that activity or setting up in house. Drones are a complicated piece of kit and are now controlled by increasingly complicated regulations and it will take some time for the market to bed them in.
But the responsibility for making these regulations work doesn’t just lie with the drone community. Anyone who engages with drones on a commercial basis also has, I believe, a responsibility to ensure that a misinterpretation of the rules doesn’t result in the kind of incident they are specifically designed to avoid. No company wants to be at the centre of another Gatwick incident.
So, while the rule changes are a hugely positive step forward for anyone cheerleading the development of drones, we need to be careful that the enthusiasm for this opening up, doesn’t inadvertently lead to the kind of incident that puts drones (and a brand’s reputation) in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
If you are considering engaging a third party to access drone technology, ask yourself the following:
Am I engaging with an established, professional drone operator with the relevant qualifications, authorisations and insurance?
Can they do what I need them to do while staying within the rules and maintaining public safety?
Can they keep me and my customers’ data secure immediately after collection and during any transfer?
If you can’t satisfy yourself of even these three most basic questions, you have to ask yourself if you are willing to risk compromising public safety, the reputation of your firm and the further development of drone technology.
Rebecca Jones is the co-founder and CEO of drone inspection specialists, Iprosurv
We recently caught up with Graham Brown, CEO of drone trade body ARPAS, to talk about the future of commercial drones, the acceptance of their benefits in the business world and what ARPAS is doing to ‘normalise’ their presence in all our lives.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognise the opportunity in a market and, more importantly, help realise that opportunity.
Drones tend to be viewed in the extremes – either as a hobby toy or as military hardware. And while they are both, they are increasingly making their presence felt in the commercial world. While these inroads are more like footpaths (relative to the opportunity) the commercial application of drone technology is growing all the time, supported by the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (ARPAS).
Headed up by industry-outsider Graham Brown, ARPAS is the non-profit professional body and trade association for the commercial drone market, focusing its energies on raising awareness of drones in business and engaging with regulators and Government to create the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure to allow them to flourish.
While his professional background is in finance and technology rather than the drone community, Graham has become a rapid and keen convert.
“ARPAS is the not for profit trade association looking after the drone economy and ecosystem and when I joined, they were looking for someone who would be completely unbiased and work with all sectors of the market and Government,” says Graham.
His business background and his collaborative approach puts Graham in an excellent position to take a practical (but passionate) view of the role drones will play in all our lives.
“Drones are tools in the commercial world, and they happen to be very flexible. But one of the main reasons I believe every business should look at them is that if you have people working at height, or people working in hazardous environments, you have a responsibility to consider using a drone.”
“If you had someone working for you who fell from a height, injuring themselves or worse, and a drone could have done that job …” He drifts off letting the sentiment speak for itself.
“In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives”
For Graham, it is a no-brainer that businesses of all shapes and sizes, up and down the country, should be exploring the use of drones, particularly where workers are at height or in a hazardous environment. The question needs to be asked “Can that task be achieved by a drone and avoid the risk of working at height?” For many inspection tasks, the answer will be yes.
In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives. Beyond the obvious safety benefits, he says there are four key areas where drones are being or will be used extensively over the coming years.
“The number one use today is in data capture, using drones in surveys and inspections to collect all the necessary information,” he says.
“This includes their extensive use in construction, civil engineering, oil and gas, utilities, news reporting, media and film. The list is nearly endless and already impacts our lives, but we are still only at the start of the journey.”
The second area is the transportation of people via air taxis and buses.
“This is often referred to as Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and the intention will be to have services covering local and regional transport that deliver a greener alternative to current options. This won’t happen overnight, but it will happen,” says Graham.
The third area is freight – everything from large unmanned cargo planes to packages being delivered locally to customers and there have been trials of delivering everything from food to vital health supplies around the world. The UK has some of the busiest airspace in the world so ensuring these activities are carried out safely will take some time but again, but Graham is confident it will happen.
The fourth, and most exciting area, is ‘drones that do’. By this Graham means drones that perform a specific task beyond flight such as washing the windows of a high-rise office block or spraying crops in a much more selective, precise manner.
“Think of flying robots that can perform tasks. Those examples are simple but this area will expand as innovation kicks in,” he says.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation”
And it seems that it is not only Graham who is getting excited by the possibilities here. Leeds University has experimented using 3D printers and drones to locate and make small repairs and Michigan State University has tested using a drone to find and replace damaged roof shingles and autonomously make repairs.
“There will be things we haven’t thought of yet, but it is the mix of drones and robotics that will create the market of drones that do,” he says.
But regardless of how drones are currently used or will be in the future, there is, Graham says, one constant: “Drones are faster, safer and cheaper, and often greener.”
His conviction that drones will become an integral part of our everyday lives is persuasive, but it does beg the question as to why we are still waiting for it to become a reality.
The reason for the delay is pretty much why ARPAS exists.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation to focus on the imperatives for the use of drones in the future.
“We have to build some of the wider infrastructure before we can safely have thousands of drones out there. It is about building systems to monitor their use and if we don’t want to be behind the curve, we need to get some of that in place now, with dedicated test areas and proper funding,” he says.
“We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere”
He says that by engaging with the CAA and Government, ARPAS is helping to establish an environment in which drones can thrive.
“We are getting behind drones but in a way that makes sure their adoption is done in a safe way and where public sentiment is supportive,” he says.
But even if the correct, safe environment is established, businesses themselves have to be convinced of their merits. While various organisations from insurers and construction firms to local authorities and police forces have started using drone technology, it is not yet pervasive. And this, according to Graham, presents a challenge.
“Business buy-in is crucial,” he says, explaining that some still view drones as a toy rather than a business tool.
“The whole appreciation of safer, faster, cheaper hasn’t quite penetrated. We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere,” he says.
“There are some exceptions, but for most businesses, they are getting some but not all of the benefits.”
He points out that while they are being used effectively by many companies, the emergency services and search and rescue organisations, until the capabilities are integrated across the whole operation, the full benefits will not be realised.
For example, some insurers are using drones in claims, but they are not currently using them in building surveys, a use that also has applications beyond the insurance industry.
“Maintenance teams are usually reactive but by deploying drones, across all the assets they manage, they could get all the external surveys done and analyse the data.
“The comparison between past and current images and data can be reviewed and the exceptions rather than the whole asset base would be the target of preventative maintenance to help drive efficiencies. I appreciate this is a simplified view of the activity, but I hope it makes the point. Opportunities exist for change to deliver safer, faster and cheaper ways of working,” he says.
He adds that it is not until we achieve the extensive use of drones, that we can say we are properly using them.
While Graham and ARPAS relish the challenge of creating the physical and cultural environment that will allow drones to thrive, there is an awareness that the destiny of drones is not entirely in their hands.
“This is not one sector’s problem on its own. To get to the point where drones are used throughout industry, everyone needs to get together to drive this,” says Graham.
For what started out as a niche plaything for flight enthusiasts, the penetration of drones into the commercial world is accelerating at rapid pace.
It’s not just the headline-grabbing Amazon delivery proposal – it’s everything from farming, utilities and insurance to the emergency services, engineering and even acting as a temporary mobile phone mast.
But one area where they are starting to make real inroads, and where the cost effectiveness and accessibility they bring is urgent, is in construction and building, in particular, council-owned buildings.
The anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy has just passed but the work to make tower blocks across the country safe, and avoid a repeat, is still to be completed. This is despite the fact there is a real urgency to inspect the buildings, understand the risk and map out a remediation plan for each one.
It’s not surprising that we find ourselves in this situation. It is a pretty monumental undertaking and the planning alone takes time never mind the practicalities of erecting the scaffolding at each site and getting all the necessary paperwork in place to do so.
And when public funds are at stake, it is incumbent upon those responsible for using the funds, to do so in the most cost-effective way possible. Thankfully, councils seem to be acutely aware of this and many are starting to wake up to the possibilities that drones open up for them.
Iprosurv was instructed on an 15 story high rise where the cladding is falling away from the base structure. This is creating obvious health and safety issues but as the cladding falls away, moisture creeps in threatening to compromise the integrity of the building.
To satisfy insurance requirements, the managers of the building had to undertake a thorough inspection of the property to identify and quantify the risk and put a remediation plan in place. For a multitude of reasons, time was of the essence.
Getting the scaffolding up around the building to conduct a detailed inspection would have taken weeks if not months so they looked to other solutions and found Iprosurv.
We were able to secure the area, send a drone up, get detailed imagery of the damage to the façade and, using thermal imagery, pinpoint where moisture had seeped into the fabric of the building.
From this, the client was able to prioritise the remediation and pull together a plan to take to their insurer to ensure that the building could be made safe and satisfy the insurance requirements. And of equal importance, all this was made possible with zero disruption to residents in the building or the surrounding area.
From instruction to delivery of all the data to the client, including a high definition 3D model, took eight days and cost 1% of what it would have cost to erect the scaffolding.
While this is just one instruction on one building in one council on one insurer’s portfolio, if we were to extrapolate those time and fiscal savings across the portfolio of buildings that require inspection, the savings would be monumental.
It is very encouraging to see more and more insurers and councils explore the possibilities of drone technology but for society at large to see the full benefit, we need to get to a position where drones are an integral, normal part of the process, whatever that may be.
Anyone directly involved in the commercial use of drones will recognise the effort it has taken to get them accepted as an integral part of business processes of all types. But increasingly, and particularly in nationwide safety projects such as the Government’s cladding remediation programme, their use starts to look like an urgent no-brainer.
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” This quotation is widely attributed to the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison, but for businesses throughout the insurance sector, this has become an underlying mantra as they rapidly adopt new working practices and digital technologies during the COVID-19 lockdown. The long-term nature of such changes and the impact they may have on traditional means of doing business is still unknown but the speed with which the sector has responded has been widely praised.
When it comes to the new technologies being employed by insurers and brokers, most have been pre-existing services which were available but not utilised prior to the lockdown. From Zoom to Teams to the use of drone technologies, COVID-19 has encouraged the insurance sector, which has often contended with the label of being slow to innovate, to embrace new solutions.
Rebecca Jones (pictured above), owner and co-founder of the drone services provider, Iprosurv, noted that while, from a financial services perspective, insurance has lingered behind in terms of digitisation there is clearly new momentum. Insurance businesses are starting to embed tech processes into their business models, and this has evidently been accelerated by the lockdown.
“We’re seeing parts of the supply chain suddenly being forced to use tech services,” she said. “And previously they tended to be wary or apprehensive about these services or just to dabble with them as opposed to making them a fundamentally integrated process.
“It used to be a case of ‘we’ll try every other way we can do it first, and then we’ll adopt a tech perspective.’ [The lockdown] has been of benefit because the preconceptions about drones and tech in general have often been indifferent at best, and negative at worst, but now our clients have been in a position of being able to see what [these services] can really do.”
Jones outlined how Iprosurv, which is approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), is something of a pioneer in the drone services sector in terms of its insurance applications. Since its start-up in 2014, the business has seen dramatically increased demand for its drone inspection services and a definite uptick in the market in terms of adopting this technology. Iprosurv’s national network of individual commercial operators deploy drones on demand throughout the UK and offer a variety of services from damage assessment to risk management analysis.
The drone is the ‘tool in the box’, she said, capable of quickly capturing data and digital imagery which can be analysed to form a report. The range of applications of these technologies is vast and, for clients during the lockdown, this is an opportunity to explore alternative solutions so they have the data necessary to progress their claims or create risk management surveys on certain structures.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Iprosurv worked with the CAA as it identified that it would need to make site safety assurances and implement changes to the ways in which it communicated with its clients. There is some apprehension from a policyholder’s perspective regarding people entering their property during COVID-19 as they may be self-isolating, and so the hands-off approach has been useful.
By ensuring that all contact regarding an inspection is carried out prior to the site-visit, she said, the business is able to ensure that drone pilots operate in sheer isolation, and that there is no interaction from a policyholder’s perspective and minimal contact with the associated site.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have is getting people to dip their toe into new services,” she said. “There has been a little bit of apprehension in terms of what drones can do and what data will be received and whether or not it will be good enough. But what we find is that once clients have used the technology, they like it and their feedback is amazing and they are asking themselves why they didn’t use it sooner.
“It’s difficult to find positives out of this pandemic but as a digital and tech-enabled provider, this crisis has forced the industry to embrace and experience new technologies and the way they can help the customer experience and how, from the customer’s perspective, these solutions can help facilitate faster and more enhanced decision making. That is a real positive and I would like to see that the industry as a whole really embrace tech moving forward.”