Mobility and Transport

Drone flying – can standards catch up?

As commercial drone use grows, the need for technological and operating standards is increasingly pressing. In the USA, NextGen Air Transportation (NGAT) is a non-profit consortium involving academia, industry and government, focused on developing air traffic control, airspace management and flight safety related to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) integration. Kyle Snyder, Director of NGAT at North Carolina State University, offered some insights.


What kind of training and education does NGAT at North Carolina State University offer?

NGAT is the nerve centre of all unmanned aircraft activities in the state of North Carolina, so we’re deeply involved in coordinating education in all aspects of unmanned flight across the state. While we don’t offer training in drone flying here at North Carolina State University, our strength is educating aerospace engineers and computer scientists when it comes to designing better unmanned aircraft. In fact, students in our aerospace engineering programme have been building UAVs as part of their senior design projects for the past 30 years.

What is the focus for the education?

Educating people in various fields on how to get maximum benefit from the data captured by drones is also emphasised – how farmers using aerial photography can identify the condition of their crops or how surveyors can utilise drones to collect geographic information system data. This means going into GIS in depth and building up a full understanding of the different types of information available. So we’re working with our Department of Remote Sensing to provide GIS training, giving them datasets from our flight operations. A one-off course is currently available in drone LIDAR operations and imagery, that is, using light and radar technology to map and measure distances.

Where is actual drone flight training offered?

Auburn University in Alabama has an unmanned aircraft flight school, which recently received FAA approval to offer commercial training. One of our partner schools here in North Carolina, Elizabeth City State University, is also starting a UAV Operations programme, the actual piloting side of operations. It’s part of the aviation sciences bachelor programme. I would say there isn’t a single major school in the US that doesn’t have some programme focused on unmanned aircraft, either in the form of aerospace engineering like we have here at North Carolina State or in aviation sciences, emphasising flight training and airport management. And both sides are important, because we expect to see more and more drones in use and required training will be necessary, even for small aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, recently announced plans to introduce a regulatory framework, which would include an operator certificate and an FAA knowledge test for UAV operation that must be taken every 24 months.

Are you cooperating with the authorities to define the future regulations more precisely?

Yes, in fact, we’re working with the state of North Carolina to develop additional rules. We want to see knowledge of North Carolina’s own UAV laws included as a requirement to obtain a permit to fly drones in this state. We’re also cooperating with private flight schools that say they can teach the FAA requirements as soon as they’re established. In our view, it’s better to support the private sector in this area than to offer training at our university, because the demand is going to be so high.

What standards would you like to see applied?

When we’re flying, our practice is to always have an FAA-licensed pilot in the command loop, but I don’t expect the FAA to adopt that standard for broad commercial operations. The most important point is to ensure that drone pilots understand airspace and know the rules of the air. This will require a combination of pilot and instrument ground-school training to establish basic knowledge of how airspace works, as well as of the different types of airspace, communication with aircraft control and what to expect from manned aircraft and pilots in the airspace. But knowing how to fly a manned airplane is pretty much irrelevant for flying many of the small aircraft emerging onto the markets today.

What are the main challenges you see arising as the commercial drone industry develops?

The big challenge is that the toothpaste is already out of the tube. It’s so easy to buy drones, and they’re so easy to operate now. The technology has matured so much in the past five years that it’s almost too late to put rules and regulations in place. One of the first things we ask is whether people operating a UAV are outside the 5-mile or 8-kilometre no-fly zone around the nearest airport, which is one rule that already applies. We find that many people just don’t know how to even determine that.

How could the insurance industry provide support?

It will be interesting to see what happens once the FAA publishes what it’s going to do in terms of formal law. With Amazon selling 3,000 drones a month in the US alone, I wonder how many of those people are going to actually go out and get a licence to operate commercially. The insurance industry will play an important role. A professional aerial photographer for weddings, real estate or agriculture, for example, buying insurance will be asked to show that he has the right qualifications.