If we are to see drones deliver the benefits identified by PwC and others, BVLOS operations need to be an everyday routine operation in all categories of airspace. While you do not need to look too far to find criticism of current drone regulation, it is not the regulations that are holding back routine BVLOS drone operations. The recent seventh edition of CAP722 Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance & Policy, goes far beyond the sixth edition with regards to BVLOS; the sixth edition simply stating that BVLOS operations “will require an approved method of aerial separation and collision avoidance that ensures compliance with Rule 8 of the Rules of the Air Regulations”. In contrast, the seventh edition refers to BVLOS some 14 times and qualifies the non-segregated BVLOS requirement by “A technical capability which has been accepted as being at least equivalent to the ability of a pilot of a manned aircraft to ‘see and avoid’ potential conflictions. This is referred to as a Detect and Avoid (DAA) capability.”
So how far away are we? Paradoxically, BVLOS operations in controlled airspace are now the norm for MALE drones and the uncontrolled airspace in which most current drone commercial operations is undertaken is the hardest nut to crack.
The CAA Regulatory Sandbox has called out for new entrants who are pursuing BVLOS approvals, in order to help shape the BVLOS regulatory framework. Equally, the MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency) are seeking demonstration of operation in unsegregated and uncontrolled airspace to point the way towards drone enabled search and rescue.
A key element to ensuring safe separation is the potential mandating of Electronic Conspicuity for all air users. Regarding collision avoidance, the bar is not particularly high as manned aviation visual lookout capability is quite limited and ostensibly forward looking.
It is hard to separate the BVLOS debate from airspace management issues. UTM is widely discussed and there have been some successful demonstrations on what may be possible. The limitations of current radio/voice enabled ATS are clear in terms of control capacity. The nature of drone flight control systems lend themselves to remote control and integration into UTM. In the interim, there is a case for allocating aispace, outside restricted zones, say below 400ft as drone zones.