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Brexit or no Brexit – Change is Coming

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In February 2018 the European Aviation Safety Agency published its latest version of the proposed drone laws across Europe post-2019. An ‘Opinion’ in Euro-speak. Somehow they managed to work their way through 3700 comments from 215 bodies and individuals.

If you have time and motivation to analyse 41 pages of dense legalise then go for it; the full document is here. Alternatively, here’s the run-down on where we are. Probably.

What’s going on?

EASA is attempting to harmonise drone legislation across Europe, basing it on a risk-based approach (i.e. not just on the mass of a drone but also on what it’s going to be doing) and also manufacturing requirements (i.e. CE marks of conformity).

But Brexit means Brexit, right?

Whatever happens in UK politics, these rules are likely to hit British statutes in some form. However, exactly how that happens is really not clear. But, a couple of options:
1) UK becomes a non-member-state member of EASA. Full membership looks unlikely though, certainly according to the latest EU briefing documents. There is word that the UK is holding out for this option.
2) UK becomes a ‘third country’ in Euro-speak but with a BASA [Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement] and working relationships establishing inter-acceptance of certificates and licences. This would have the disadvantage of not allowing the UK to have input into future changes, meaning we either have to accept changes or sacrifice the advantages of a harmonised system. Now that wasn’t in the referendum campaign literature was it….

 

Where were we up to before the ‘Opinion’

Deep breath.

The proposals set out three categories:
1) Open – for low risk operations using relatively small drones
2) Specific – for higher-risk operations where some operational standards will be implemented (akin to a watered down version of the current Operating Safety Case process)
3) Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC) – for specialist work generally using large drones (e.g. Amazon deliveries)

Existing commercial operators will for the most part be scooped up by either the Open or Specific categories, depending on the size of the drone and how specific their requirements are.

What has the ‘Opinion’ done to change things?

Not much, but there are some important areas. Appeasing the model aircraft brigade was a priority, which we won’t go into here. But they’ve also put out some important clarifications on registration, operating limits, and technical requirements. Here’s the latest…..

Cross-border documents

This is the big win for commercial operators. The advantage of EASA regulation (rather than national regulation) is that rights and permissions are intended to be interchangeable. i.e. An operating permission in one country should be valid in another. Countries outside EASA can also apply to have their documentation accepted.

One word of caution: member states may well publish variations to the standards, especially the UK if it takes the status of ‘third country’ (see above). That may well undermine the principle of inter-operability.

Will I still need a ‘Permission’?

Yes and no. Most operators are likely to fall into the ‘A2′ class of operations, unless they want to conduct low risk activities completely away from uncontrolled persons. This will require a sub-4kg drone and approval from, most likely, one of the exisiting National Qualified Entities (NQEs) on behalf of the UK CAA. However, that looks unlikely to include a flight test (again for sub-4kg drones), rather ‘familiarisation flights’ conducted privately.

That said, there is scope for jobs to be done in the ‘A1′ category (e.g. a Mavic Pro) which will require only online training as a means of registering as an operator.

Are there any new technical requirements?

Yes.

  • ‘A new requirement has been added to mandate a smooth transition in the event of the activation of an automatic flight mode.’ Well, hopefully your drone does that already.
  • Drones above 250g will need to have quite a sophisticated tagging system broadcasting not just the registration number but also serial number and some GPS information (e.g. where it took off from)
  • drones must have unique serial numbers
  • low-speed mode (‘tripod mode’) mandated for the ‘C2′ class

What’s that about tripod mode?

This is a big one. If you have a tripod mode then your minimum separation from ‘uninvolved’ persons goes right down to either 3m or 5m (the document is inconsistent on that). This blows the requirement for an OSC for operators of sub-7kg drones.

Tethering

The potential let-off for tethered drones is eliminated. They have to meet the requirements of untethered drones.

Do I need to register?

Yes, unless the drone is under 250g. EASA really can’t be bothered with micro drones.

What about height restrictions?

There was a plan to limit <250g drones to 50m height but that’s been scrapped. The 120m rule applies to all, at least in the Open category. But line-of-sight restrictions also apply which probably counts against flying your Spark at 120m.

Carrying dangerous stuff

…is now permitted again in the Open category. As long as it’s for farming or forestry work.

Cars and boats

Operating from moving vehicles is now explicitly permitted, aligning with the US Part 107 regulations as it happens.

The dreaded Operations Manual

Ops Manuals look set to be rarer beasts. They won’t be required in the Open category it appears, and there’s also scope for standardised manuals for much work in the Specific category. Bad news for Ops Manual reviewers.

Finally, when does all this happen?

The target for ‘decision’ is roughly Easter 2019. Brexit alert!

That said, the process has already slipped along the way so further slides may occur.

Thought has also been given to the transition process, with the wheeling out of that favourite European concept, the ‘derogation’. Once the ‘application’ date has arrived (presumably late 2019):

  • registration process must be in place
  • no-fly zones across the member states must be decided
  • NQEs must be nominated
  • 3-month period for operators to register (although existing operators get up to 1 year to register according to the new framework)
  • 2-year period for all manufacturers to comply with the CE standards on all products

 

In summary….

Complicated they may be, but these rules look to free up a lot of the commercial drone market from onerous training and certification requirements. The big winners are the roof surveyors and estate agents with DJI Mavics who will be largely free to go about their business with little red tape.

The rump of commercial operators flying the likes of DJI Inspire will be fairly happy too. Gone is the nonsense of writing an Operational Safety Case around an off-the-shelf aircraft to get a close-proximity permission.  For specialist operators it’s largely a case of ‘keep calm and carry on shooting’. Rights earned under the OSC system are likely to be continued and rightfully hard to obtain for those without the expertise.

If it’s bad news for anyone, then it’s the rogue Mavic flyer who wants to fly down the ILS approach at Heathrow. EASA has them squarely in its sights.

 

 

 

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DJI’s Mavic Pro – Media Game Changer?

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(the following was written for Consortiq)

In September 2016, the game changed. And we’re only now beginning to realise it. That was when DJI released the Mavic Pro. Why was it such an important moment? Because this was the day that drone filming and the world of aviation parted company.

That’s a controversial suggestion of course. The Mavic is subject to the same rules as any other drone. Any professional operator requires an operating permit, in the UK at least. And stories of Mavic owners goading each other to fly as close they can to commercial air traffic confirm that the potential for mid-air collision persists.

So, what’s new? The tech for sure – no one would deny that the physical design and miniaturisation are nothing short of brilliant. But that’s a side issue. The Mavic is the first drone which has the portability and convenience to be considered as ‘just another tool’ in the cameraman’s armoury. And that’s a fact. Just this week a craft cameraman on a big BBC ONE peak-time show contacted our media training consultant. He’s buying a Mavic to keep as an extra weapon in his camera van. Good luck to him Michael said. And this is a show which he’s worked on as a professional operator.

Arguably, the Mavic is taking us to a place where the regulations quickly break. With professional footage now obtainable from such a small and convenient craft, the days of expensive qualifications for all commercial operators, regardless of their aircraft type, need to be numbered. Treating a sub-1kg drone no differently from a 7kg drone is clearly untenable. Writing an original 70-page operations manual for every Mavic pilot is questionable. In short, without regulation reform, the rogue operator will not be containable. EASA has already said as much in its prototype regulations. Brexit throws those into doubt of course, which means the likes of the Mavic and even smaller DJI Spark are likely to force the issue. These machines take us into a world of flying cameras, not video-capturing drones.

So where does the Mavic road take us? The smart money is surely on an industry driven by risk rather than regulation. And there’s one group of people better than most at estimating risk: insurers. The miniaturisation of drones means that in the battle of insurers and regulators, it is surely the insurers who will increasingly be in the driving seat. Attempt to regulate first, and the rule makers will tie themselves in knots, forever behind the curve of technology. Listen to the insurers and, in theory, manufacturers will be driven by fear of ever increasing liabilities to mitigate risks through technological advance.

Embrace the world of risk-led operation with light touch regulation and the Mavic could herald the drone industry’s first big step change. And it’s certainly not to be the last. View our latest industry report here about how drones are paving the way for advancements in the media industry.

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Have drone. Now let’s film.

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Creating the UK’s First Specialist Media Drone Training Course

Here was the challenge: devise a training course which could take someone with no flying experience and deliver them ready to film aerials for TV safely, legally, and creatively. All in one week. Thanks to UAV Air and ConsortiQ this is now a reality, and our first candidates have completed their training.

So what was the thinking behind the shape of the course? And how can you best prepare someone for the challenges and pressures of delivering a director’s vision in the real world?

Balancing Theory and Practice

When I started in this business, theory training was all you could get from the big providers. I was amazed. So the UAQ-M brings together these two elements from the start.

And what’s great about learning theory alongside flying skills is that the two feed from each other. The dry basics of LiPo battery tolerances or air law all stick in the mind when you put them into practice in the field within 24 hours. And if logistics allow, we also mix theory and flight training within a single day.

Build Solid Flying Skills

It’s so tempting to plunge straight into scoring that glory shot. But if you can’t fly accurately and efficiently you’ll never reach your filming potential. We decided from the start that executing challenging manoeuvres with no camera on board should be the foundation of the course. Cue figure-of-eights, nose-in hovers and plenty of other fun.

Theory for the Real World

Quite rightly, the CAA sets the core curriculum for all NQE (National Qualified Entity) training. However, there’s plenty of scope to shape the module content within that framework.

On the UAQ-M, unlike a generic course, we know what industry our students are going into. So there’s little point in talking about roof inspections and estate agent shoots. Instead, we decided to tailor the exercises and case studies to the media environment. And we also cover the basics of privacy and data protection, which stand outside the realm of aviation law. Non-UK matters get an airing too. The lack of harmony even in European drone regulations presents a real headache for the media business.

Don’t Train for a Test

Training someone to pass a test is dead easy. In many cases a pilot could scrape through a flight assessment by the end of day one. But it’s an approach which doesn’t serve anyone well, not least because a flight assessment has nothing to do with getting good footage.

Our approach was to train well past the assessment standard. And a media operator needs different skills too. On aircraft like the Phantom 4, panning can only be achieved by rotating (‘yawing’) the drone, and that means a lot of practice flying in different orientations. Flying close to the ground, and also to obstacles is a key skill too. Collision avoidance sensors occasionally come in handy.

Two days are dedicated to shot scenarios too. PTCs (pieces to camera) are a great challenge, plus all manner of reveals, birdseyes, point-of-interest shots and more. It’s far from an exhaustive toolkit, but a firm foundation of shot types for sure.

Simulate the Whole Job

I remember the first time I went out on a shoot with my shiny new operator’s qualification card. It was a shambles. I was shocked at how badly prepared I was. Everything seemed different, not least because I’d spent all my practice, training and examination standing in a sterile field.

That’s why scenario training became a key component of the UAQ-M. We scoured the local area for challenging and realistic locations and tasked the students to plan and execute the shoot from beginning to end.

The Results so Far

With a dozen candidates now graduated, the course has really found its feet. But the exciting thing about the media is that expectations constantly shift. Today’s hero shot is tomorrow’s cliche. Keeping up with the pace of innovation is going to be rewarding and challenging task.

If you’d like to find out about the UAQ-Media course just drop us a line.

Under the Roof – Flying Indoors for Virgin Media

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It’s a question which often gets asked: can you fly indoors? And the next question is generally: what are the rules?

Flying indoors is definitely doable, and there are some great shots to be had. For Liberty Media we were asked to get some aerials of a distribution warehouse for the new Virgin set-top box. So it was a good chance to think about how to fly safely and legally indoors.

So, is it legal?
Yes, in short. The one slightly grey area is whether CAA regulations (i.e. the Air Navigation Order) still applies. There are endless discussions on this subject but, for me, it really doesn’t matter too much. The basics of the rules (50m separation from people not under the pilot’s control) are no less sensible indoors than outdoors so I see no reason to depart from them. Besides, if something goes wrong, any court is going to want to hear a good reason for departing from normal methods.

Control
The big challenge in an environment like this is keeping safe. We used a segregated area of the warehouse, controlled by marshals, and chose a time when all but a small number of worker were away on their break. Those present were briefed and kept at a distance where we could communicate with them in the event of any problem.

Technical matters
Here’s where things can easily go wrong. Indoors there’s no reliable GPS, so that system has to be turned off. You’d think that a warehouse is a still environment but, as it turned out, we encountered plenty of strong wind currents which took plenty of concentration to counteract.

The other vital consideration is failsafe. Normally the drone will rise to a set height, then return to the home point and land. So, without a mitigation, the drone will fly up into the roof, and then attempt to return to a non-existent home point (through lack of GPS). Not good news, so it’s better to set the failsafe simply to ‘hover’ which at least gives a chance to make the area safe and try to regain control.

So, as ever, planning is key for an indoor shoot. Challenging, fun, and rewarding in equal measure.

In a Tight Spot – Port Talbot from the Air

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The rules can be restrictive, but with good planning the seemingly unachievable can become achievable.

For a current affairs special on BBC ONE Wales the challenge was to show the Port Talbot steelworks in the context of the surrounding urban area. After all, the Port Talbot works really are IN Port Talbot.

So what are the rules? For our sub-7kg rig it comes down to a simple requirement:

[An unmanned aircraft] must not fly ‘within 50m of a person, vehicle, vessel or structure that is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft’ (Air Navigation Order Article 167)

And when you measure out 50m it’s a surprisingly long way.

But in this case all was not lost. Thanks to the Aberavon Wizards we managed to get access to their perfectly placed rugby pitch, right in the middle of the congested area. Instantly this gave us the 50m separation we needed.

The other tool at our disposal was lens choice. The DJI Inspire’s MFT camera system offers a wide range of compatible lenses and even the 25mm option narrowed the field of view right in to the adjacent houses.

It’s a good reminder that when the rules act as a prompt to find an imaginative safe solution they justify their existence very nicely.

Michael Sheen: The Fight for my Steel Town is broadcast at Wednesday 8 June 2016 at 8pm. Also available on the BBC iPlayer.

Have drone, will travel (up mountain) – The DJI Inspire Backpack

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Drones may be small but most operators, me included, are generally guilty of turning up to a job with endless flight cases. After all, how can we possibly travel without our cones, chargers and kettle?

But for BBC ONE’s Countryfile that wasn’t an option. The task was simple, and daunting: carry everything needed for a broadcast-quality shoot on a 4-mile round trip up and down the Tryfan mountain in Snowdonia. And single-handed.

The DJI Inspire was definitely the tool for the job but its width makes it tricky to house in a conventional rucksack. There are some options out there for carrying the complete case but they really don’t look fit for purpose. Instead it was a good chance to try the soft DJI Inspire backpack.

In this configuration, batteries, controller, filters, cards and any other accessories travel in the main compartment with the Inspire held by strapping on the back. It’s much like a baby carrier really, with arms and legs shooting out of the four corners. Do fit some weather protection though as the motors are all exposed. And, whatever you do, don’t fall over because the Inspire will cop it first.

The shoot itself had plenty of challenges, mainly because of a desperate shortage of flat areas to use as landing points. Flat(ish) rocks and narrow patches of gorse were the best options, making for some high-pressure landings as the wind steadily increased. But, 10 flights later, a tally of zero crashes was a good result.

Verdict after 6 hours on the mountain? A big success for the backpack. No back ache, not even a stiff neck. Plus some great shots and plenty of amazing memories.

The Countryfile Children in Need Ramble is on BBC ONE on 1 November 2015

20% Off your First Shoot

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We’d love to meet you, and for you to see if Leaping Wing is the right option for your shoots.

So until 16th October new clients get 20% off their first booking. Just quote DRONE20 when booking.

The small print:

  • strictly one booking only per client
  • single or half-day bookings only
  • 20% discount on the shooting fee only. Does not apply to travel expenses
  • bookings must be made before 16th October and completed before 31st October

New Inspire Camera – A Broadcaster’s First Look

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So the Inspire 1 just got a new camera. And thank goodness for that. The X3 we’ve been using until now has done a decent job but the limitations on bit-rate and codecs are a real pain.

Enter the X5 and X5R, just announced by DJI. How do they measure up, especially when it comes to broadcast? Having worked the last 18 years in the BBC I was interested to find out.

Initial verdict: a cautious thumbs-up.

First, the good news. A bigger (micro-four-thirds) sensor means much greater dynamic range. And interchangeable lenses mean that even if the glass in DJI’s own offering is not the best then we can opt for something else. The RAW capability on the X5R should be fantastic too, although it’s a bit annoying to have to use a proprietary SSD (presumably because of mounting issues on the aircraft?). The follow-focus option could be fantastic for those who like to operate close to the subject too.

But no optical zoom? That’s a disappointment. I know many will say ‘just fly closer to the subject’ but that’s not always practical or safe. A zoom really would be a useful asset to have, although perhaps the Zenmuse gimbal just couldn’t cope with the camera’s shifting centre of gravity.

There’s one big unknown too, namely the bit rate on the X5’s H264 recording. We do have a figure, 60Mbps, but that’s listed as a maximum. With the X3 average bit rates were found to be markedly lower. Clearly the X5R will solve the problem but most of the time we don’t want to be inflicting massive RAW files on our post-production colleagues. It really would be good to know that the H264 recordings on the standard X5 will be pumping at reasonable rates, unlike the existing X3.

That said, the new Inspire camera is massive news. It’s also, it would appear, a kick in the teeth for Blackmagic who are on the verge of launching their own specialist aerial camera. Or are DJI sourcing some of their components for the X5 from Blackmagic? Either way, the X5 looks to be the current best option for anyone who wants a professional aerial camera option at keen prices. I’m definitely getting one.

New DJI flight modes and why I probably won’t use them

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After months of begging, DJI Inspire (and Phantom 3 series) owners finally got the so-called ‘Intelligent Flight Mode’ options this week. Well, mostly, in the case of the Inspire.

So are they any good? Well, kind of. But for TV work I’m not sure I’ll be touching them. And here’s why.

(Firstly, a confession. I haven’t actually done the upgrade yet. But thanks to Elliott at Aerial Academy we can see how they work in his video)

  1. Point of Interest
    Arcing around a subject is a common task so I was excited about this one. And actually this one looks pretty decent. However, it’s not a particularly hard pattern to execute manually. More importantly, in anything but a benign environment there’s a real danger of colliding with trees or other obstructions on this one. If there is a benefit here it’s the ability to concentrate on varying altitude while the aircraft takes care of the yes. So a half thumbs-up at least.
  2. Follow me
    This hasn’t actually arrived on the Inspire yet, but even when it does I doubt I’ll touch it. Reason: there’s hardly any situation when I don’t want to leave space for a moving subject to move into. In Elliott’s demo the aircraft always lags behind the movement rather than anticipating it. That’s a big no-no unfortunately.
  3. Waypoint
    The ability to repeat a move precisely has some initial appeal. However, the trouble with real life is that it never repeats exactly. I’ve never worked with a presenter or actor who moved at the same speed, in the same direction, and on the same cue in take 2. Sure, waypointing will be fantastically useful for survey work, but that’s where it’s likely to stay for me.

I’ll update my thoughts once I’ve had a chance to test properly for myself, but for now that flight mode switch is likely to remain away from the ‘F stop’ for the next few shoots at least.