GAME OF COMMERCIAL DRONES
[ffb_paragraph_0 unique_id=”pk3copb” data=”%7B%22o%22%3A%7B%22gen%22%3A%7B%22ffsys-disabled%22%3A%220%22%2C%22ffsys-info%22%3A%22%7B%7D%22%2C%22text-is-richtext%22%3A%220%22%2C%22align%22%3A%22text-center%22%7D%7D%7D”][ffb_param route=”o gen text”]It’s been a rapid ascent for these unmanned flying machines into the commercial atmosphere, but safety laws have struggled to keep up.
by Carrie Cox, CCI WA Works (Summer 2016/17)
The excitable take-up of drone technology by the commercial sector continues to outstrip the many safety and security questions it poses. What minimum training should a commercial drone pilot have? How do commercial sites stop unauthorised drones from flying over their work spaces? If a drone falls in a forest and no-one hears it, could it start a bushfire? (Answer: yes.) While the many cost savings and technological efficiencies delivered by drones are irrefutable and impressive, safety legislation – slow and risk-averse by definition – has struggled to keep up.
NEW BUSINESS IS FLYING HIGH Growing demand for trained drone pilots in WA – and an abundance of ex-FIFO workers looking to reskill themselves – provides the impetus for Mahmood Hussein’s new business, Global Drone Solutions. The British-born WA “turnaround expert” and aviation enthusiast spotted a gap in the market three years ago and went after it like a fighter pilot. “I thought this is fantastic . . . the prices are coming down, the drones now have fantastic sensors on board, they’re a lot safer and I could see that a number of mining companies were starting to use them for all sorts of applications,” he says. “So the time was right and things have only mushroomed since then.” Hussein took nine months to get approval from CASA – “it’s like setting up a small airline” – and then developed approved training modules to set GDS up as a certified training organisation and operator.
Successful graduates of his one-week course receive a Certificate III in Aviation (Remote Pilot – Visual Line of Sight). While GDS currently runs one training course each month (with a maximum of eight participants), demand has led Hussein to offer a second monthly course from March 2017 and he’ll open a Brisbane office in January. “FIFO workers who were made redundant are coming to us to get a new skill and go back to the mine sites with a new capacity for work as a contractor,” he says. “And people come to use from other sorts of industries too and for all sorts of reasons – drone flying is a job of the future, really.” In addition to training new drone pilots, GDS assists them in gaining early baby-steps experience – weddings, roof inspections and other small jobs – to quickly amass enough flying hours to qualify for mine site work. Besides mining industry take-up, drones are finding plenty of work in construction applications too, Hussein says. “Many companies are using them to create monthly update reports for stakeholders – 90-second videos that visually show the progress of a construction,” he says”. “Drones can capture angles that are otherwise very hard to imagine when you compare the cost of using one for a few minutes to the cost of hiring a cherry-picker for the day.” On the issue of safety, Hussein is a fan of greater regulation. “My position on training requirements is not a vested one; it’s a genuine safety concern – you don’t want something dropping from a height of 120m onto someone’s head,” he says. “Basic training should be essential. Every drone pilot should know the rules and regulations and I believe that any drone above 250g should be registered.”
“That’s absolutely correct,” says Peter Gibson to claims new laws can’t keep up. As the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s Head of Corporate Communications, Gibson has witnessed the drone juggernaut at the same warp-speed as the rest of us. “Since 2002 (the year that CASA became the first international aviation authority to draft a set of rules governing drones), the scene has changed dramatically,” Gibson says. “The drones themselves are vastly different now, with far greater capacity and applications we’ve never before envisaged. “We are acutely aware that the rules need to keep up with the pace of intake and so we have scheduled a full-scale review of drone rules in the not too distant future.” CASA’s timeframe is ambiguous. The Federal Government recently announced a review of aviation safety regulation in relation to drones (or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems – RPAs – as they are known in the world of acronyms), ostensibly to be overseen by CASA but effectively run by a Senate Committee.
The review is, arguably, a kneejerk response to CASA’s decision in September to ease licencing restrictions (and red tape) for lightweight RPAs – a decision that drew the ire of many, not least the Australian Federation of Air Pilots. Federation president David Booth, a Virgin Australia pilot, recently told The Australian: “I believe in Australia we owe the travelling public a duty to provide good regulation on drones and these laws won’t do that. Unlike a bird, drones are hard and made of metal, composites and lithium batteries, which could explode on impact. These new rules remove layers of safety and pose serious risk to air safety in Australia.” So will CASA sit on its hands until the Senate Committee delivers its conclusion? “There’s no point in us doing anything until after that committee has finished its work,” Gibson tells WA Works. “After that, typically we’ll release a discussion paper and invite comment. In the meantime, businesses need to know this is not a free-for-all.” Though certainly not a free for-all, at least in the industrial sector, drone take-up continues unabated. In September 2015, WA’s Department of Mines and Petroleum described an “explosion in the use of drones as cheap, yet extremely versatile sensor platforms” – and there’s been plenty of drone action since then, with companies using them to measure stockpiles, conduct 3D mapping surveys and carry out once-laborious maintenance checks of large equipment.
But while hailing the drone’s many benefits, the department also issued this warning note at the time: “Not only do drones present business risks (e.g. public image and privacy risks), but there are also technical and safety risks.” It described an incident in which a drone had become unstable after encountering interference, hit a roof and unsheathed one of its lithium-ion batteries, which subsequently started burning on the roof. In another reported incident investigated by CASA, a drone flown by a member of the public flew into Port Hedland Harbour and crashed in a laydown area – fortunately not on anyone’s head. Early adopters of drone technology in WA mining largely framed their own safety parameters while the drafting of rules and regulations caught up. Heritage Manager at BHP Billiton Daniel Bruckner, who uses drones daily to find and map sites of cultural heritage where they exist near sites, says his team was “looking at drones even before CASA”.
In fact, his team built its first drone using a kit. “Early on we were investigating whether we needed a pilot licence to operate the drones, and in our case it was determined our purposes were more research than commercial,” Bruckner says. “Since then, and being a risk-averse company, we’ve done our own full risk reviews for the various classifications of drones – any usage outside of those parameters requires raising a JHA (Jobs Hazards Analysis).” Drone technology has transformed the nature of Bruckner’s work. Traditional mapping involved drawing sketches and taking pictures mostly at ground level – a slow, methodical task. Now a two-minute drone flight can capture “a couple of thousand pictures” that are fed into a GIS (Geographic Information System) using 4D software technology, explains Bruckner. “A few years ago, talking about using drones in the way we are now was like James Bond stuff,” he says. Interestingly, Bruckner’s primary safety concern isn’t that a drone might crash into someone’s head – or, for example, a culturally irreplaceable stone arrangement belonging to local indigenous people – but rather that an overheated drone that isn’t landed safely could spark a fire in the red-hot Pilbara. “Drones run on batteries and batteries generate heat – in the Pilbara that could spell danger if there was a crash,” Bruckner explains. “So we’ve looked very closely at mitigation and there hasn’t been an incident so far. We’ve found there’s a trade-off in
that bigger drones, while lasting longer and capturing more data, need bigger batteries and generate more heat and therefore have a greater fire risk. “So we opt for nothing over 1kg – it’s about finding that sweet spot.” On the issue of fire risk, CASA’s Gibson concedes the threat had only recently appeared on his radar. “It’s a valid point – lithium batteries can cause thermal runaway and there is nothing in the rules about that right now,” he says. “How would you regulate that? Our advice is that sites themselves should think carefully about those risks where they might apply.” People also need to be mindful of unauthorised drones on their sites, Gibson says. “Sites should ensure that any drone on their property adheres to the required rules and regulations – for example, they must be 30m away from people, avoid crowds, have line-of-sight control,” he says. Easier said than done, one might argue, if someone spots an errant third-party drone flying over a site but not its controller. It’s a possibility that quickly takes drone discussions from the area of safety into security. BHP’s Bruckner says: “While it’s not an issue for us at present, with most big iron ore producers using the same technology, there is the potential for industrial espionage involving drones and this is the sort of thing the Australian Government should be writing legislation about now, rather than waiting to see an incident on the news and then relying on precedent legislation that is likely to be active and shortsighted.”
THE BIG PICTURE
While drone technology has more than paid for itself in Daniel Bruckner’s work of mapping cultural heritage, he says financial justifications for their use are “myopic” and miss the point. “For me, the bigger picture is what this technology allows us to do that could never have been done before, and for us that means being able to share and preserve cultural heritage that might otherwise have been lost,” he says. “We’re now able to share all our footage with local Aboriginal groups for tourism and other purposes, and they’re extremely grateful for that possibility.”[/ffb_param][/ffb_paragraph_0]