Hey, grab some airspace for nothing, and make money

16 September 2018 / by the GAA team / Agricultural, Consultation, Governance, News, Safety

This blaze broke out when a large drone crashed in California. It could just as easily happen in Otago

There seems to be an insidious trend towards obtaining the use of public airspace for private commercial gain, with no known dividend to either the public or to aviators who have customary rights to the airspace.

The first hint of trouble came when a North Island enterprise called Incredible Skies unexpectedly won restricted airspace conditions on an enormous area around Hokianga – and then advertised internationally on the web, inviting drone developers to come and test their machines in this scenic spot (presumably, not for free, eh?).

Remarkably, they got away with it, not least because the CAA failed to carry out the required consultation with interested parties. Civil Aviation Rule 71.9 requires the Director to consult with affected persons, organisations, and representative groups within the aviation industry, before making a designation or classification of airspace.

This was a very serious lapse in governance, for which the Authority almost immediately came out with its hands up high.

We’re waiting for the outcome of a request to have the term of this airspace restriction extended. Incredible Skies has applied to have 874 square kilometres of airspace restricted from the surface to 3000 ft AMSL.

But now more trouble is brewing, and this time, way down south. Once again, unmanned aircraft are at the centre of it.

Commercial Part 102 certified operator Skybase has issued a community notice to airspace users of planned operations in the vicinity of Alexandra aerodrome. The notice begins by saying that “Alexandra Aerodrome (NZLX) is soon to become a focal point for the unmanned aviation industry.”

Skybase has applied for the designation of a restricted area to segregate ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) trial flights from other aircraft.

The CAA’s initial assessment has identified the following VFR operations that would be directly affected:

  • Glider and tugs circuit at Alexandra aerodrome
  • Standard overhead join procedure at Alexandra aerodrome
  • Low flying zone NZL970, Galloway, is almost entirely within one of the proposed restricted areas. As per the advice from Skybase, agricultural aerial operations would be able to continue as necessary. However, it is unknown as to if, or how many, uncharted aerodrome or heliports are within the proposed areas.

This is the area concerned. It is nowhere near any fire station, airfield or water source

The Authority says a full picture of the likely impact to aircraft is not yet available and that it is reliant on feedback from users.

The CAA has a policy document “Guidelines for the establishment of temporary restricted airspace”

A statement from this 2013 document reads: “There is no justification to designate airspace where an applicant may gain a commercial advantage (especially if the applicant indicates a desire to charge people to enter and operate within the area), unless there are compelling safety reasons.”

Interestingly, another section of the 2013 document reads “CAR 71.151 requires the Director to ensure that each portion of special use airspace designated is as small as practicable consistent with the activities for which the area is required. The need for restricted airspace must be justified and, if necessary, a lesser volume of airspace than that requested could be designated if the request is excessive.”

The CAA has issued a document about this proposal, which you can download here

More than 100 concerned people attended a CAA-hosted consultation in Alexandra, and all of them opposed the idea. Under questioning, the applicant company admitted that it had lost two UAVs.

Skybase Chief Executive Michael Read, and CAA General Manager GA, Steve Moore, suggested that conditions could be imposed on Skybase’s operation, such as only operating at night.

The GAA considers that there is a considerable public risk. The basis of this is the well-documented hazards associated with lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries. In the event of substantial damage occurring to the batteries due to loss of control of a UAV and it crashing into the ground, this may happen:

Thermal runaway, normally caused by an electronic error or mechanical damage, is a typical fire scenario for Li-ion batteries and accumulators. It starts in relatively unspectacular fashion: oxidation of the electrolyte heats the interior of the battery to around 80°C, causing gas and steam to appear in the cell. If this process is not stopped, it triggers a chain reaction. At around 120°C, the separator between the anode and cathode melts. This causes a short circuit and the thermal decomposition of the cathode. This releases oxygen which, combined with the heat energy, ignites the materials in the anode, cathode and electrolyte (mainly organic solvents, light metals and graphite). Temperatures can reach up to 1000°C.

Imagine this – or any air crash-related fire – happening up on the often tinder-dry, tussock-covered tops of the Raggedy Range or Rough Ridge. It could only be fought by helicopters with monsoon buckets and the nearest available aircraft would be at Queenstown or Wanaka. The closest suitable source of water for them could be a considerable distance away. The question is: Do we need to expose Central Otago to this sort of risk, and more particularly if ‘beyond line of sight’ operations are also to be carried out at night?

Chinese AT200 UAV with an MTOW of more than 3 tonnes. Mind your heads…

The proposed area at Alexandra is, in our opinion, not fit for purpose.  The risk to the public and landowners is extremely high, particularly if the UAV operator loses control of the aircraft. The CAA has previously suggested that Skybase require from the surface up to 7000’ so that, should something go amiss, the operator could land the UAV. That crude logic presupposes that the operator will retain control of the UAV down to a safe landing. Having watched several model aircraft mishaps, when a wiring connector has come loose or servo actuator malfunctioned, there was never an outcome with a “controlled landing”.

There have been reports that, ultimately, the company applying for this restricted airspace plans to use a PAC P-750 UAV, on which the Chinese AT 200 UAV is based. This UAV has a maximum take-off weight of 3.4 tonnes.

As recently as 13 September 2018, a Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAV sustained a problem during a test flight. The engine was shut down and the pilot attempted to land the aircraft on a runway. The landing gear did not deploy and the plane made a belly landing. The Triton sustained significant damage and the landing was defined as a Class A mishap, an incident that results in a fatality or damage costing more than $2 million.

And there could be further strife in store for the CAA. The runholders of the country beneath this proposed airspace are apparently ignorant of what is being planned and the NZ Fire Service, DoC and the relevant county councils were not on the list of stakeholders advised by the Authority.