The unmanned aircraft business is worth billions, and civilian use is increasing. UAVs, known colloquially as mini drones, were one of the most popular Christmas presents last year. Aviation expert Thomas Kriesmann explains what you have to watch out for with these devices.
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The UAV market today
The UAV business is buzzing, in the most literal sense of the word. The number of private users of unmanned aircraft is on the up: last year these machines were one of the most popular Christmas presents not only in Germany. Originally created for military purposes, the technology has massively developed over the past ten years, making these devices affordable for civilian use. Today, entry-level models for leisure use are available for just a few hundred euros, whilst aircraft costing up to €100,000 are used in the construction of cable cars.
Interest in UAVs was recently piqued once again as Internet giants Google and Amazon announced their plans to develop drones for delivering parcels.
Before this article investigates this topic further, here is a list of commonly-used terms which all refer to the same concept:
- UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), which will be used in this article
- UAS (Unmanned Aerial System)
- RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial System)
This article looks at remotely controlled UAVs used for civilian purposes.
The majority of commercial UAV users are media companies (film, TV, advertising), tradesmen, real estate agents, research institutes and police authorities. This group of buyers primarily uses UAVs as a flying imaging system. Nowadays, it's not always necessary to construct rails, along with a crane, for a tracking shot: scenes are filmed with a UAV. A roofer no longer needs to climb up on a roof to inspect it (nor does he need to put up scaffolding beforehand), and a real estate agent can take stunning photos and videos of the property he is selling.
Uses and consequences of UAV technology
For purchasers today, the strongest selling point of UAVs is how relatively easy it is to operate them. One core element of UAV technology is the highly detailed sensors which constantly measure the UAV's flight data and pilot it accordingly. This means, for example, that a single rotor blade can be automatically adjusted up to one hundred times a second to ensure the UAV flies steadily and does not run into problems. Another key aspect of UAV technology is GPS navigation, which the UAV uses to fly independently along a pre-programmed route. This is called a 'way point flight'. Finally, a 'fail safe program' in the UAV ensures the aircraft will return to its departure point if it encounters problems during a 'way point flight'.
This means that UAV technology basically pilots itself, to a large extent. Whilst this is often put forward as the main selling point for a UAV, this is also where the main operational risk lies. By contrast to manned flight, operating a UAV requires significantly less human input - if it relies on its navigational technology alone. And, despite everything, this navigation technology is still not quite perfect. For this reason, UAV users also have multiple options which give them the opportunity of manually operating the device. A sound basic training covers topics such as
- radio technology (RC radio technology, video radio technology, sources of interference)
- battery technology (charging, maintenance, storage, transport, recognizing faults)
- calculating flight time
- security checks for the aircraft and the RC navigation system
- audible and visible signals (MK-based system)
- further security information (securing take-off and landing area, flight zones)
- what to do in an emergency (battery, radio issues, weather, other aircraft)
- air traffic law and clearance
Companies offering professional training sessions also look at topics such as
- legal first-person-view flights (i.e. using the images captured by the on-board camera) with 2 people
- way point flight (planning software, parametrics and communication)
- flying over buildings and forests
- advanced meteorology
- advanced UAV checks (technology for experts)
- system maintenance
A safe UAV pilot is generally considered to be someone with at least 35 hours of flying experience and substantiated knowledge of the above topics. There is currently no legally required minimum qualification for flying a UAV, unlike manned aircraft.
UAV and air traffic law
The increased popularity of UAVs necessitates corresponding alterations to air traffic law. As is well known, the main objective of regulating and supervising manned flight is to ensure human safety during this airborne interaction between man and machine. International collaboration on this topic is nothing new. However, collaboration on UAV operation is just getting started. Currently, over 800 organizations and stakeholder groups are working on agreeing and introducing internationally valid UAV standards.
A few years ago, German air traffic regulations (LuftVO) were altered to include a section on the use of UAVs. This was needed to distinguish them from remote-controlled model aircraft. Autonomous flight (i.e. the independent flight of an aircraft not controlled by a human) is banned in Germany; this applies to both UAVs and model aircraft. The distinction between a model aircraft and a UAV is not based on technical details, meaning that a remote-controlled multicopter sold in an electrical store, equipped with all the UAV technology, is not classed as a UAV under German air traffic control laws. Rather, German air traffic control laws differentiate between UAVs and model aircraft based on their purpose alone. If the aforementioned multicopter is only used for leisure purposes, the relatively simple conditions for operating model aircraft must be adhered to. If the aircraft is used for commercial or business purposes, stricter regulations are in place for its use as a UAV, such as applying for a take-off license from the relevant regional committee. Take-off licenses are either issued for a whole year or per flight.
A quick detour to Austria can help illustrate that there is still some way to go before UAV operating standards are fully standardized, as far as "leisure" is concerned. In Austria, "leisure" may no longer be stated as a purpose if a UAV is used to take photos mid-flight - even if for purely private use. This is justified with the explanation that the main purpose of the flight is secondary to the purpose of aerial photography. This is a position not yet taken by the German authorities.
Liability scenarios connected to operating UAVs
To date, no situations have been recorded in which a UAV operator has been held substantially liable. Nevertheless, the model aircraft scene in Germany has already borne witness to two deaths caused when interference in the radio steering controls led to control of the planes being lost, and people suffering fatal injuries. Radio interference is the most frequent cause of accidents. An example of liability caused by a UAV could look like this:
On a weekday morning at 8 a.m., the façade of an office building in a European city is to be inspected for thermal bridges using a UAV. As the UAV operator is flying the machine, the radio remote control suffers a fault. Out of control, the UAV flies along the street. At the next crossroads, it crashes into the windscreen of a car driving along the road. The driver panics, jerks the steering wheel, and veers his car into a bakery, in which 14 people are standing. Seven people are severely injured, or killed, and both the shop and car are totally destroyed. Given the extent of the damage, the liability amounts to a seven-figure sum.
Another often discussed scenario revolves around damage caused by frequency hacking, where a third party hacks into the radio frequency of another UAV and therefore gains access to potentially sensitive data. The third scenario, just as frequently debated, comprises the threat posed to the private sphere by unauthorized photos and videos. In these issues, too, legislatures are just beginning to develop the international agreements which are required, partly because, thank goodness, there have not yet been any major catastrophes.
The future of UAV technology
As already stated, Amazon and Google's announcement in 2014 that UAVs could be used to deliver parcels is likely the first groundbreaking step towards the commercial use of UAV technology. The first test flights Google carried out in Australia were promising. DHL is also active in this field, and is investigating how UAVs can be used in emergencies to send medicines from the mainland to the German island of Juist.
The use of UAVs and UAV technology will cross further boundaries in the years to come: the dream of a flying car could be made reality as this technology develops. Globally, there is currently a real research boom, with prototypes being tinkered with as part of well-funded projects. Will we soon be able to press a button and change our cars' wheels into rotors, take off, and float carefree above traffic jams? There are still many challenges to overcome before this vision becomes reality. However, like the UAV itself, the flying car's place in the future of mobility is secure.
Thomas Kriesmann is a Senior Underwriter in the General Aviation department of AGCS and has been at the company since 2002. He is responsible for the development of AGCS liability - and for physical damage insurance for UAVs (Kaskoversicherungslösung für UAV). He studied Business Administration and Foreign Trade at the University of Reutlingen, and worked in international trade, in logistics and in the record industry before he transitioned into aviation insurance.