New technology brings risk as well as opportunity
Hobbyists and businesses using remote control aircraft – or drones – have been warned they could be causing a serious aviation hazard.
The Civil Aviation Authority is concerned about the growing number of unmanned aircraft being “used as toys” in Cayman’s airspace.
Alastair Robertson, director of air navigation services regulation, said there was a risk that the drones, which are increasingly being used by photographers to take aerial pictures, could distract a pilot or even be ingested by the engine of a passenger jet, with catastrophic consequences.
He said low-flying aircraft, like the mosquito control planes and the police helicopter, were also potentially affected.
Mr. Robertson urged anyone operating remote control planes to “exercise a high degree of common sense” and not to use them near the airport.
He said there had been no incidents yet, but drones had been reported flying close to manned aircraft on several occasions, causing concern.
Adam Cockerill, who is in the process of establishing Cayman’s first commercial drone photography and videography business AirVu, backed the authority’s stance. He said the adaptation of remote control aircraft as a tool for photographers created fascinating new opportunities that carried a new set of risks.
“Drones can be flown between zero and 400 feet – a range that is not accessible to any other type of aircraft – which gives them a unique advantage. They can take pictures from angles and perspectives that have never been seen before.”
He said the relative affordability and availability of camera-carrying drones, as well as high-tech remote control aircraft, which allow the operator to get a drone’s eye view of the world through special goggles, had resulted in an explosion in popularity, as well as business opportunities.
Tourism promotion videos, real estate marketing and news reporting are all potential growth areas for drone photographers.
Events like the Flowers Sea Swim, during which 900 participants will descend on Seven Mile Beach this weekend, are prime candidates for this type of photography, said Mr. Cockerill.
Ironically, he said, it is these type of events, with thousands of people packed into one spot, that represent the greatest risk.
“Becoming a certified operator is so important because it gives the operator guidelines – he knows where to draw the line in terms of safety, rather than making decisions from a purely commercial perspective,” he said.
Mr. Cockerill has been operating multicopter drones for just over a year and obtained his license from the Unmanned Vehicle University in Florida. He is currently going through the process of certification with the Civil Aviation Authority in Cayman – a requirement to operate commercially here.
Though drones are only allowed to operate to a maximum height of 400 feet in Cayman, they can technically be flown much higher if the operator disregards or is unaware of the safety regulations.
Mr. Robertson said the increasing popularity of remote control aircraft means that there is also an increasing number of people unaware of the rules.
“The problem is they are now available on the Internet fairly cheaply and people are operating them as toys without an awareness of the risks associated with flying these things,” he said.
He added that there had been several reports of remote control aircraft being spotted close to aircraft, and the aviation authority is attempting to prevent an incident by warning hobbyists to exercise caution and reminding commercial operators that they need to be certified.
For recreational operators, using an unmanned plane weighing less than 7kg is not regulated at the moment, says Mr. Robertson.
It’s a different story when the plane is used for commercial purposes. In that case, permission from the Civil Aviation Authority is required.
Mr. Robertson added, “There are two main potential risks; one is that if you come to close to a low-flying aircraft, you could hit the aircraft or distract the pilot; the second is that one ends up in the engine of an aircraft. Engines are not designed to withstand that kind of impact and the consequences could be catastrophic.”