British skies could become a dangerous place in future with unmanned drones increasingly crossing flight paths with commercial aircraft.
National Air Traffic Services (NATS) hopes to reduce the risk with the release of a new mobile app called Drone Assist to help amateur aviators navigate their drones.
Drone Assist is the product of a partnership between air traffic control provider NATS, the handlers of 2.3 million flights in 2015, and Altitude Angel, a British company behind a cloud platform that connects drones with their environment in an ecosystem it calls "The Internet of Flying Things".
"We found a lot of drone operators didn't know too much about the airspace, so we wanted to develop an app to educate people on where they can, or where they should or should not fly," NATS drone lead Phil Binks told Techworld.
The free app gives drone operators an interactive map of the airspace used by commercial air traffic to show areas to be avoided or entered only with extreme caution, the hazards on the ground and any security and privacy risks that could be encountered.
Within a week of its 3 December launch, the app had been downloaded by around 2,800 people, about 840 of whom had identified themselves as professional pilots. The figure represents between 30 and 40 percent of all commercially registered drone operators in the UK.
Growth of drones
NATS approached Altitude Angel to build the app last summer after a spate of incidents in restricted airspace led to growing fears of drone dangers.
The number of near misses between drones and aircraft have grown exponentially in recent years.
Unmanned aerial vehicles were involved in 64 incidents up to the end of November 2016 according to the UK Airprox Board (UKAB), more than double the 29 recorded in 2015. There were just six in 2014, the first year any incidents involving drones were reported.
Drone ownership is becoming increasingly common as the devices grow cheaper and more sophisticated, with impressive ranges and battery now available in affordable products.
Electrical store Maplin alone sold more than 15,000 drones in the UK last year, and manufacturers are expecting a bumper Christmas sales bonanza to end the year, making the December launch of the app at the UK Drone Show a timely decision.
Thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) now circle the British skies. They include the world's busiest city airspace in London, whose airports were used by more than 150 million passengers last year.
Drone Assist shows the airspace used by commercial aircraft on a map comprised of standard aeronautical data that is sent to the European Aeronautical Data (EAD) for publication and then inserted into the app by Altitude Angel.
"What Altitude Angel has done essentially, is to build a platform which connects to EAD in real-time, and that's important because airspace information changes on a regular basis, and it's important to make sure that the information displayed in the app is accurate and relevant," says Altitude Angel founder and CEO Richard Parker.
Altitude Angel adds something unique to the database: ground hazard information such as schools and power pylons derived from different mapping sources which may not be illegal to pass but present a danger nonetheless.
"To date, we've delivered just shy of half a million airspace restrictions and ground hazards that have been visualised through that application" says Parker.
The app also includes a ‘Fly Now’ feature to let drone operators share their flight location with the any users of Drone Assist or the Altitude Angel flight network at the click of a button.
Drone Assist adds another layer to the numerous safety measures established and discussed in recent months.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released a revised Dronecode in November after an industry-first report into user views on drones revealed that only 39 percent of drone users had even heard of the safe-flying regulations. The app supports the code to provide a single source of truth for UK drone rules.
CAA rules state that drones can’t be flown above 122 metres or within 50 metres of people, vehicles and buildings, and must always remain within the line of sight of the user. Flying one near an airport can result in a five-year stint in prison.
Collisions with aircraft will remain a danger, and the impacts of drone shrapnel on a jet engine or windscreen or the rotor blades of a helicopter are yet to be fully investigated. BALPA, the registered trade union for UK pilots, is examining ways to make drones visible to air traffic controllers and to make automatically move them out of the way of aircraft when they get too close.
The UK government has heeded their concerns and discussed installing geofencing systems to create virtual walls around danger zones, a barrier already incorporated in a number of drone models by manufacturers.
"There is a growing demand for some kind of drone registration," adds Parker. "I think that's an important political step as well as an important safety step as we move beyond visual line of sight restrictions, which essentially would allow a drone to be flown without a human in the loop.
"Then we need to see more of a move towards integrating safety systems into drones themselves, so that drones can take on more of that safety function, i.e. not flying in a restricted area, or not flying too close to an aircraft."
Future flight plans
Drones are growing in popularity in all sectors. Amazon announced the first-ever 'Prime Air' delivery by an unmanned aerial vehicles on December 14. The drones are built with multiple redundancies and sophisticated 'sense and avoid' technology to ensure safety.
Not everyone is convinced there are sufficient safeguards, particularly while regulatory support remains elusive.
“Right across the European Union and around the world, regulators are settling on what those safety requirements are going to look like," says Parker.
"I think at that point manufacturers will be crying out for solutions from the industry that ultimately make that compliance much simpler for them, and that's certainly where we're aimed."
What users can't do with Drone Assist is add their own observations of changes in the airspace, but that situation may change in future.
"Through the work that Altitude Angels do, we're looking at essentially crowd-sourcing hazard information that's on the ground, but again we're very very cautious about what we allow people to publish that doesn't come from an authoritative source," Parker explains.
"When we work with mapping companies for example, we work with professional mapping companies rather than just open source for that reason. It's very important to us that the quality of that data is assured. But as we fast forward a couple of years, we're also building outputs directly to drones themselves.
"We're starting to connect humans to what is traditionally information that they wouldn't get access to, and in the future that technology can be embedded into drones to stop them from ever being able to get too close to an item of manned aviation. That's our goal."