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Brits must now register virtually all new drones and undergo safety tests

Where industry leads, government follows with gusto

By Gareth Corfield, 24 Jul 2017

New British drone owners will have to register their craft with the state and pass a mandatory safety test, according to a government announcement sneaked out over the weekend.

The plans are a response to the perceived danger of amateur drone operators cavorting around the skies willy-nilly, causing headaches for airliner pilots and air traffic controllers alike.

“Like all technology, drones too can be misused. By registering drones, introducing safety awareness tests to educate users we can reduce the inadvertent breaching of airspace restrictions to protect the public,” said aviation minister Lord Callanan in a statement.

The rules will apply to all new drones weighing more than 250 grams, with the move being intended "to improve accountability and encourage owners to act responsibly".

Though the government’s intention is clearly to force all new users of items other than kids' toys to register, the details have not yet been worked out. We are told: “Users may be able to register online or through apps, under plans being explored by the government,” though the mandatory test will cover “safety, security and privacy regulations”.

“There is no time frame or firm plans as to how the new rules will be enforced,” noted the BBC.

Chinese drone maker DJI, the pre-eminent market supplier, welcomed the move. Brendan Schulman, a veep at the firm, said in a statement: “The Department for Transport’s proposal appears to strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing those benefits to the UK’s businesses and the public at large.”

Schulman also sounded a warning note over the scheme’s sketchiness: “We expect the government to work closely with industry leaders to ensure progress and promote technological innovation... The key will be maintaining this balance in the next round of deliberation.”

Hackers have circumvented software restrictions on off-the-shelf DJI drones, bypassing height limits and so-called geofences around areas that governments would rather the public couldn’t see inside. Earlier this year DJI imposed its own mandatory registration scheme, limiting flight performance if users chose not to bother.

The EU announced its own set of “draft” regulations on drones earlier this year, with industry figures expecting them to become mandatory with few or no changes.

Nobody has kept track of how many consumer drones have been sold up until now, meaning there are potentially thousands of people with drones weighing 250g or more who will not be affected by the registration scheme – or tested on their knowledge of aerospace regulations.

Was the study justifying this move a fair test?

Key to the government’s published justification for this is a study carried out by British miltech boffinry outfit Qinetiq (PDF, 18 pages) which showed that drones colliding with aircraft cause significant damage. Commissioned by the Department for Transport, the Military Aviation Authority (a branch of the Ministry of Defence) and the British Airline Pilots’ Association, a trade union, the study found “drones can cause significantly more damage than a bird of equivalent mass at the same speed... due to the hard metallic components present in drones.”

Some in the drone community immediately questioned the study’s validity because of the drone and payload used. Qinetiq testers decided to strap a hand-held Nikon DSLR camera underneath the drone. This is not typical of how most camera-equipped drones operate; the vast majority have integral cameras of about the size and weight of an external webcam.

“It’s important for the drone industry, with both hobbyist and commercial interests, that any regulations that are agreed on, or legislation that is enacted, should be based on sound studies which global drone experts agree are accurate and based on real life like use cases,” Ian Hudson, a CAA-approved drone pilot, told The Register. “The photographed device appears to be a collection of parts barely passable as either a consumer or professional drone. The camera alone is the weight equivalent of a DJI Mavic and DJI Spark taped together.”

During the tests, the drone and its components were fired into a sample of airliner and helicopter windscreens and a computer model derived from the gathered data.

One source described the testing to El Reg as “garbage”, questioning the use of a 10,000mAh battery as excessively large and heavy and not prototypical of most drone operations. DJI’s Inspire 2 drone, as used by Devon and Cornwall Police, has a 4,200mAh battery. Broadly speaking, the greater a battery’s charge capacity, the physically larger it is. ®

Bootnote

Someone from a well-known aero engine company once related a story to your correspondent about jet engine foreign object debris (FOD) testing using chicken carcasses. The test team had a turbofan engine on a rig at a test site and an air cannon set up to launch the birds into the running engine, with lots of high speed cameras set up to monitor what happened when the fowl met the compressor blades. Having set everything up, the team knocked off for lunch.

Upon their return they spooled up the engine and fired the cannon. The engine promptly disintegrated in an explosion of metal shards, instead of chewing up and spitting out the bird as expected. This confused the test team somewhat so they had a look at the footage from the surviving cameras.

It turned out that a hungry feral cat, smelling the chicken, had crawled into the cannon and started enjoying the best – and last – meal of his life while the team were away. The engine had been designed to survive an impact from one bird but the extra mass and bone density of the cat turned out to be more than the fan blades could cope with.

To be fair to the design team, felines tend to be in rather short supply at altitude.

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