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Taking Flight

Explainer: What are the rules and regulations surrounding drones?

For one, you should refer to them as unmanned aircrafts from here on in.

OF ALL THE technological developments that have happened recently, few got as much attention as drones. While they have been around for a while, it’s only in the past year or two that they’ve really entered public conversation.

But with so much interest in them, not many are aware of the rules and regulations surrounding their use. Chances are most people have questions about them, even if they’ve no intention of flying them.

Whether you’re thinking of purchasing one or just curious about the subject, here’s what you need to know.

So what exactly is a drone?

The term drone is usually seen as a catch-all term and is the term most people use when talking about remote controlled aircrafts.  Drones normally refer to any aircraft that is computer controlled, bypassing the need for a person to pilot it remotely.

The term that should be used is either Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS, which is the term we’re using from now on), which refers to any aircraft that can be operated remotely or are computer controlled.

While there are both rotary and fixed-wing models, the aircrafts you would normally associate with the term drones – those that carry goods or record video and capture images – are normally either hexacopters (an aircraft with six propellers) or octocopters (an aircraft with eight propellers).

The cost of an RPAS which can capture high quality imagery or videos and can stay in the air for a decent amount of time would begin at €1,200 and can rise as high as €15,000.

Who currently uses them?

While a drone can be purchased and flown by anyone, they are mainly used by businesses and companies. Thanks to their size, they can be transported easily and can take-off or land in seconds from confined spaces. More importantly, they’re a cost effective solution for those who benefit from aerial photography.

So far, 17 companies have been granted permission to fly RPAS in the Republic of Ireland. Companies like SkyTech Ireland in Cork, which specialises in aerial imagery, use it to capture images of land and buildings while the Gardai and The Irish Defence Forces have also invested in them.

SkyTec Ireland / Vimeo

RPAS box

What are the rules surrounding RPAS worldwide?

So far, the regulations surrounding RPAS are still in development, simply because the industry has exploded in recent times.

Currently, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is in the process of introducing new rules and regulations covering the operation of RPAS.

Also, the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) is in the process of getting involved in RPAS operations for all weight categories instead of those above 150kg, meaning there will be a number of development in the field over the coming months.

In the case of Ireland, what are the rules?

For now, the only specific legislation governing their use is the (Rockets and Small Aircraft) Order, 2000, which is currently under review.

While the regulations and requirements behind RPAS are extensive – it’s highly recommended that you read the full overview from the IAA here if you’re seriously thinking of piloting one - in layman terms, they’re effectively treated the same way as manned aircrafts.

That means it cannot present or create a greater hazard to anyone or anything, either in the air or on the ground, than that of a manned aircraft. They can only fly in segregated airspace and require written permission from the IAA.

What do I need to do before I can pilot one?

As well as written permission, you will have to partake in both a theory and practical test first. Similar to training for manned flights, topics like aerodynamics, aircraft technical systems, navigation, rules of the air and emergency procedures will be covered.

Also, practical training in the operation and control of a RPAS in flight, which may also include simulated flight training, will also be required. Currently, SkyTech Ireland offers a training course for those thinking of piloting one in the future.

Drones in Belfast Some unmanned aircrafts, like this quadcopter in Belfast, are used as surveying tools to help with planning and development. Niall Carson / PA Wire/Press Association Images Niall Carson / PA Wire/Press Association Images / PA Wire/Press Association Images

And what do I need to do before the flight?

You need to give a minimum lead-in time of 90 days for your request to be processed. The reason for this is because segregated airspace must be made exclusive to the RPAS operator to ensure no accidents occur. If a drone’s weight is greater than 20kg, it must be registered unless an exemption is granted by the IAA.

Currently, you must apply for each flight regardless of purpose, although the IAA does allow some flexibility with dates in case a flight is cancelled because of bad weather.

An appropriate sense and avoid system must also be in place otherwise the drone won’t be allowed to fly. As well as ensuring the aircraft isn’t a greater hazard than it currently is, its separation and collision avoidance capabilities must be able to:

  • Detect and avoid traffic, both air and ground. 
  • Detect and avoid all airbourne objects. 
  • Avoid hazardous weather. 
  • Detect and avoid terrain and other obstacles. 
  • Perform functions similar to that of a manned aircraft.

If it’s granted, then the person flying the drone must be able to comply with instructions from the Air Traffic Control unit and make it clear what the aircraft is.

Ok, I’ve done everything above and I’m ready for take-off. Now what?

You must ensure that the drone is fit to fly since there are no national regulations in force addressing issues like registration, certification and continuing airworthiness of RPAS. It’s expected that when the ICAO and EASA have introduced the relevant regulations, Irish legislation will follow suit.

When in flight, the RPAS must comply with the Visual Flight Rules, the regulations pilots operate under when the weather is normal, since they affect manned aircrafts.

If your aircraft weighs less than 20kg, it’s deemed to be a model aircraft and different rules apply. For one, the aircraft cannot leave your line of sight and cannot travel further than 500 metres from where you’re operating it.

That’s a lot to take in. Is there anything else you want to add?

Just be responsible about it. If you do decide to invest in an RPAS, remember to take the necessary precautions first before you start flying one.

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