The “Danger” of Drones

Drones have been in the news a lot recently, usually for all the wrong reasons. A recent ‘alleged’ collision between an airliner and a drone near Heathrow caused something of a global news sensation (I say ‘alleged’, because it now appears the aircraft hit nothing more than a stray plastic bag). However, drone or no drone, many have been saying that a collision like this has been on the cards for some time, and its only a matter of time before a drone gets sucked into an aircraft engine.

The Economist recently reported that Britain’s Airprox Board, which collects reports of incidents, found 23 near-misses between drones and aircraft between April and October last year. And in the US, of 582 sightings reported between August 2015 and January 2016, the FAA said that over a third were potentially hazardous.

Here in Hong Kong, it’s not known how many drone ‘incidents’ there may have been over the past year or so, as the CAA does not report as such, although pilots who fly for Heliservices have on occasion reported drones flying on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, worryingly close to the heli landing pad atop the Peninsula Hotel.

Regulation Is In The Air

The net effect worldwide has been to put more pressure on authorities to tighten up regulations around the use of drones, both for commercial and recreational purposes.

For obvious reasons, flying near airports or aerodromes is a big no-no. Like many jurisdictions, the  Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department (CAD) has a 5 kilometre ‘no fly’ zone in force around all aerodromes, including Chek Lap Kok. Across the rest of the territory, drones should remain in line of sight at all times, and within a maximum height ceiling of 300 ft (91 m). Similar rules apply in the UK, where the height ceiling is 400 ft (120 m).

Drone registration is also on the cards in many countries. Already in the US, the FAA requires all drone operators to register their details online, no matter whether for recreational or commercial use. And those wishing to operate commercial services on a regular basis, such as surveying, have to apply for a “333 Exemption”. That in turn requires a number of documents and qualifications, including a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), an aircraft registered with the FAA, and a pilot with an FAA airman’s certificate.

Hong Kong Operations

Currently, procedures in Hong Kong are less complicated, but not that convenient. The CAD does not require your drone to be registered with them, but they do require a separate submission for each commercial drone ‘mission’ you wish to undertake. This is done by submitting an “Application for Permission to Operate Non-Scheduled Services for Hire or Reward Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)” form available from the CAD website. The form must include dates and times of your flight(s), the exact area of operation, and the purpose of the flight.

In addition, CAD are only granting flight permissions to ‘qualified’ UAS pilots, which for the moment means pilots who have passed the BNUC-S Certification, offered by UK-based EuroUSC. ‘Qualified’ pilots also need to submit a full Operations Manual for the specific unmanned aircraft they use on a job.

As the potential for commercial drone uses and applications continues to expand, it is hoped that eventually the CAD will streamline the application and permission process for commercial drone operators in the city. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK now issues a P-FAW to qualified pilots – a Permission For Aerial Work, which is valid for up to one year and does not require a separate application for each mission flown. However, the operator is still responsible for contacting the police or other relevant authorities, depending on the location and mission being undertaken.

Further Reading

The Economist: “Drones Club
Better technology and tougher enforcement of the rules is needed for the safe operation of drones

New York Times: “Europe to Urgently Assess Risk of Drones Hitting Planes