15 November 2018

CASA’s Manual of Standards and the commercial use of RPAs

This article was written by Alexey Monin and Thomas Cleeve.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has released an exposure draft of a new Manual of Standards (MOS) under Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR).  The MOS will set out new rules for the operation of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) systems – more commonly known as a ‘drone’.

The draft MOS focusses on commercial / non-recreational uses of RPAs.  While much of the document is highly technical and operationally-focussed, there are some significant aspects worth noting.  In particular, the draft MOS proposes important changes to requirements for extended visual line of site (EVLOS) operations.  Currently, it is a strict liability offence under the CASR for a pilot to operate an RPA outside of visual line of sight without CASA’s prior approval.  The draft MOS articulates the framework in which CASA will consider approving EVLOS operations.  This is significant as it may open up a range of new commercial applications for RPAs that are not possible under the current strict visual line of sight rules.

The draft MOS also contains new rules addressing:

  • operation of RPAs in controlled and non-controlled airspace;
  • training and certification for pilots of RPAs; and

recordkeeping and notification requirements for RPA operators.

EVLOS operations

Under the current regime

Under the proposed MOS

Strict liability offence to operate an RPA outside of the visual line of sight without CASA’s approval.

No guideline as to what kinds of operations outside of visual line of sight CASA will approve.

EVLOS operations must be approved by CASA.  

Only RPA Operator Certificate (ReOC) holders can be approved to conduct EVLOS operations.

Requirements for EVLOS operations include:

  • there is a trained observer – whose duty, among other things, is to know the exact location of the RPA and maintain situational awareness of the airspace surrounding and ground below – the RPA does not have to be in the observer’s line of sight;
  • the remote pilot meets certain requirements and has completed proficiency checks;
  • for EVLOS operations class 2, there must be radio or telecommunications systems, and an emergency back-up system;
  • the RPA is flown at a distance no more than 80% of the maximum range of the RPA control device and no more than 1.5 km from the relevant observer; and

these and other matters in the MOS must be set out in the operators documented practices and procedures.

As reflected above, EVLOS operations are subject to CASA approval under the CASR.  The draft MOS proposes that approval would be given for EVLOS operations that fall within one of two permitted classes.

Both classes require a level of direct human observation. For each class, there must be a pilot, and also an observer who performs a series of ‘duties’ relating to maintaining awareness of the RPA’s location, the airspace surrounding and ground below.  

  • Class 1 operations are where the observer is at the same location as the remote pilot and will communicate with the remote pilot without the use of a radio or telephone communications device.  This class may not substantially extend the range of existing VLOS operations given the colocation of the remote pilot and the observer and the need to be able to communicate without the use of a device.

  • Class 2 operations anticipate that one or more observers may be at different locations to the remote pilot and will communicate with the remote pilot by radio or telephone communications systems.  This class may allow a chain of observers which could increase the range of EVLOS operations.

Theoretically, one person can be both pilot and observer.  However, if the pilot is using a first person view device to pilot the RPA, a separate observer will be required.  As a result, the benefit of the EVLOS will likely arise through the splitting of these roles which may open up a range of potential new commercial uses for RPAs.

The draft MOS provides that the designated observer need not keep the RPA within their visual line of sight.  However, the observer must know the exact location of the RPA at all times, and maintain constant situational awareness of the airspace surrounding and the ground below the RPA.  The observers may use a device (for example, binoculars or a telescope) to assist in carrying out their duties, but must not use the device as the primary means of keeping the surrounding airspace and ground in sight.

This suggests that:

  • an observer can use technology as the sole means of determining the exact location of an RPA – e.g. an observer could use cameras and / or a GPS tracking system to determine the exact location of an RPA where that RPA is beyond their visual line of sight;

  • but, an observer must undertake a level of direct observation in order to keep the surrounding airspace and ground below an RPA in sight – whilst the observer can use technology in performing this duty, it must not be the primary means of doing so.

As a result, whilst approval requirements allow an RPA being flown beyond visual line of sight (of the remote pilot and the observer), the observer will still need to be physically present in order to undertake direct observation of the surrounding airspace and ground below the RPA. This rules out the exclusive use of remote observation in EVLOS operations.  It also means that the observer will need to be sufficiently close to the RPA to maintain situational awareness, if not actual visual line of sight.  In addition, the draft MOS provides that an RPA must not be flown at a distance more than 80% of the maximum range of the RPA control device and must not be flown more than 1.5 km from the relevant observer.

A potential way to enhance the range of RPA flights while still fulfilling these requirements may be to ‘chain’ observers, such that each observer will have a marked territory and observe the surrounding airspace and ground below an RPA in that territory.  Handovers could then occur between observers once the RPA passes outside the first observer’s territory.  This will likely only be feasible for class 2 operations where there are radio or telephone communication systems in place to facilitate handover between observers.  CASA will want details of these systems to ensure they are adequate for this purpose.  If a RPA reaches its maximum range, then a pilot handover could also occur, in accordance with the handover procedure in the MOS. 

Apart from these requirements, the draft MOS proposes a range of other rules that would apply to observers, including requirements to meet certain training standards, to conduct pre-flight procedures, to remain in continual direct verbal communication with the pilot of the RPA, and to direct the pilot on action required to ensure that the RPA does not become a hazard to another aircraft, person or property.

All of these requirements must be clearly set out in the RPA operator’s processes and procedures document for the EVLOS operation and must be consistent with the MOS.

Additionally, it is important to note that the restrictions on operating RPAs near people who are not directly associated with the operation of an RPA would still apply to EVLOS operations.  While the MOS has included a placeholder, it has not yet set out the basis upon which CASA might approve these kinds of operations.

Other reforms

Flying in controlled and non-controlled airspace

The draft MOS codifies restrictions (and exceptions and approval criteria) around the use of RPAs near controlled and non-controlled aerodromes.  These restrictions are designed to protect manned aviation in these areas.  The draft MOS provides:

  • that areas within 3 NM of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome and the approach and departure paths of a controlled aerodrome are no-fly zones (subject to exceptions where the RPA is flown indoors, or attached to a tether); and

  • that certain non-controlled airspace (e.g. airspace that is within 100 ft of the lower limit of overlying controlled airspace, which is the airspace that overlies non-controlled airspace) is also a no-fly zone (except where CASA has authorised a RPA operation in writing).

Training and certification

The draft MOS sets out prescriptive requirements around training and certification for RPA operators.  In particular, RPA operators will be required to undergo a remote pilot licence training course (except in relation to certain excluded RPA).  Training courses can be offered by a third party provider provided they are certified as an RPA operator and their operations include conducting training.  The courses themselves must comply with the standards and requirements prescribed by the draft MOS and, in broad terms, will need to address both aeronautical theory and a practical competency component.

Recordkeeping and notification requirements

Currently, RPA operators keep records according to their own operations manuals based on a sample produced by CASA.  The draft MOS proposed to formalise a new set of record keeping practices.  These will include requirements to:

  • keep records which demonstrate that RPA pilots are consistently performing their functions and duties under the CASR;

  • keep operational records (effectively an RPA operational log) recording details of each RPA operation, such as the nature, purpose date and time of the operation; and

  • keep a technical log for each RPA recording details such as total flight time the RPA has been operated for and, where applicable, the airworthiness of the RPA.

What’s next?

CASA has set a tentative date for the fourth quarter of 2018 to finalise the MOS, so that some of these new rules come into effect by the second quarter of 2019.  A six month transition period has been proposed to allow industry to adapt to the new training requirements.

If you would like assistance in further understanding the draft MOS, seeking approvals from CASA or understanding how the MOS may affect your business, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  The period for making submissions on the draft MOS closes on 18 November 2018.

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