2 September 2015 © David Eyre
Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’ have recently seen a phenomenal growth in their use, not just by private owners, but also by commercial operators.
Civilian UAVs range from privately-owned model aircraft and helicopters, to larger and heavier commercial UAVs that carry various types of equipment such as sensors, cameras, cargo and so on.
Aviation regulators around the world have struggled to keep pace with this proliferation of UAVs, rushing to implement legislation, rules and guidance to regulate usage.
In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has set separate rules for private and commercial UAV use.
Privately owned and operated model aircraft
CASA considers that commercial UAV pilots need general aviation knowledge similar to a private pilot’s licence, as well as specific unmanned aircraft skills.
It is illegal to fly any size of UAV for money or economic reward unless you have an unmanned operator’s certificate issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and an unmanned operator’s certificate (UOC) for your business. Due to a surge in applications for certificates, there is now a wait time of up to 10 months. Additional ratings include a flight radio operator’s licence, and experience on the type of UAV operated.
Commercial UAVs can operate over unpopulated areas up to 400 feet above ground level (120 metres), or higher with special approvals. Special approvals are also required for other areas. They can operate in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and /or instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), with appropriate approvals.
Operations are not permitted in controlled airspace without CASA approval and coordination with Airservices Australia.
Commercial usage in Western Australia
Mining and Petroleum
A relatively recent development is the use of UAVs by Australia’s largest mining and petroleum companies.
Due to the sheer scale of resources operations (mines, railways, pipelines and ports cover hundreds of kilometres) and also the large size of machinery, plant and equipment, UAVs are seen as a safer and more efficient way of conducting safety and environmental inspections, monitoring and surveying.
UAVs can be built to withstand heat, chemicals, and toxins, reaching areas where people cannot go. They can also do their work whilst the equipment or plant is still operating, which saves time and saves money in avoiding shut downs, which can be extremely expensive. UAVs can be used to inspect equipment and mining pits, check mineral stockpiles, pipelines, and even assist with environmental rehabilitation and monitoring work. They can be fitted with video or thermal imaging cameras to inspect equipment much faster, safer and cheaper than risking workers on climbing up to great heights or using helicopters.
Mines have used ground-based autonomous vehicles for a number of years, including driverless trucks and trains and autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Many of these are controlled from Operations Centres located in Perth. However, the use of UAVs is relatively new.
Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use UAVs to survey and inspect mine pits, mineral stockpiles, and to monitor operations. FMG has also trialled UAVs at Cloudbreak mine and is likely to use them.
In the oil and gas sector, Woodside Energy uses UAVs to inspect at heights, removing the time needed to build scaffolding and eliminating the safety risk to workers.
Aerial photography and cinematography
Specially-designed UAVs equipped with specially-designed still camera and video camera systems can capture high resolution still photographs and video images, operating with low noise levels.
Unlike manned helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, these are able to get as close as 5 metres to the subject. This enables close-ups of high rise buildings, historic buildings, bridges, towers and homes, which makes them useful for real estate advertising.
Engineering and construction
Camera-equipped UAVs enable construction project managers and engineers to see construction from almost any angle.
This can include real time video streaming, progress monitoring, time lapse photography, and photography from specific vantage points.
Building, chimney, tower and roof inspections
UAVs can be used to conduct roof inspections or check for storm damage, without using cranes or cherry pickers and without risks to worker safety.
It is also much more efficient, covering large areas quickly, and has the ability to reach areas that a crane or worker cannot.
UAVs can be used to conduct initial and ongoing environmental assessments, including time lapse photography. GPS equipment enables precise mapping of coordinates in three dimensions.
Emergency services, law enforcement and beach patrols
UAVs enable emergency services personnel to quickly obtain a live overview of any disaster or accident situation, to assess the best way to deal with fires, chemical spills, storm or flood damage.
They can also be used for search and rescue as well as beach patrols, watching for sharks and swimmers in difficulty.