Remember the bad old days of New Zealand’s Next Big Thing? They featured such silly ideas such as farms for ostriches, alpacas or Angora goats, as well as the oft-confused Robert Muldoon’s pipe dreams. Most of these get-rich-quick notions crashed (and burned the investors).
But those days may not be gone.
Our government, and its Ministry of Transport in particular, has latched on to unmanned aircraft (UAs) and they are telling us that this is the Next Big Thing. It will transform all our lives, says the MoT in its draft document about UA.
The scribblers’ excitement is palpable. They say that New Zealand is a world leader in the development of UA (which is not true) and that we aspire to the seamless integration of UA in a rare patch of unusually empty skies.
There are some problems with this breathless enthusiasm.
The big one for aviators is the unseemly haste with which the Civil Aviation Authority has welcomed (and, in one case, prematurely approved) applications to create restricted airspace in which to test the technology.
We know of two areas. One is around Hokianga, where the Authority wrongly granted restricted airspace to a private company, breaking its own rules by not properly consulting all interested parties. The other is around Alexandra, where the consultation was also faulty and the opposition is believed to be virtually universal.
CAA Director Graeme Harris has told the GAA: “I see the demand for restricted airspace to allow the trial of ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS) drone ops as being a growth industry until such time as detect and avoid technology is developed.”
That statement raised a few eyebrows here, until Mr Harris later clarified it: “I have no doubt that the demand will increase but that does not necessarily mean there will be any increase in the actual amount of restricted airspace. Each application will be considered against the criteria established in law and either granted or not according to whether that test is satisfied.”
Imagine the furore if a business asked Maritime New Zealand to declare 800 sq km of ocean off-limits to customary fishermen so that it could conduct research – oh, and sell everything caught during the experiments, including the occasional whale or two.
If, for example, the 874 sq kms (543 sq miles) of the Hokianga Harbour was barred to recreational fishing, we are fairly confident that the local iwi would voice their objections in a forceful manner.
What’s happening in Hokianga, and now Alexandra, is that a commercial enterprise is attempting to control previously free airspace, make money from it, and give nothing back.
There are a number of other problems:
First, there is no known indigenous expertise in the development of unmanned vehicles. True, we have a company in Canterbury developing what looks like an unmanned air taxi – but the main sponsors are based in the US. Flat Canterbury may be ideal for testing this vehicle, and New Zealand is a known soft touch for foreign fat cats seeking the mild regulatory approach (there are several foreign celebrities who prove the point, either having gained easy citizenship or bought land, the purchases being quietly nodded through).
Second, the US, Russia and China are years ahead of New Zealand in developing UA technology. These countries have vast tracts of land, suitable for testing.
Third, the Ministry of Transport’s draft document on this subject talks vaguely about the ostrich-farm riches to be gained from UA, and says nothing about home-grown UA expertise (from whence true dividends might flow). It mentions the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, but that ministry is strangely silent about its role in helping to support the technology of Kiwi-built UA.
In its draft, the MoT describes the need to create an aviation environment in which manned and unmanned traffic is integrated. However, the key element in both these applications for restricted airspace is segregation. Manned must be separated from unmanned, and in both cases this means the prohibition of manned aircraft.
What we can foresee is parts of our airspace being declared off-limits to customary users, and instead commercially exploited as a test bed for mostly foreign-financed unmanned aircraft. We can establish this fact merely by visiting the Hokianga-based Incredible Skies’ website.
Paua Interface Ltd is blatantly inviting overseas operators to use its restricted airspace property (which it obtained at no cost) to test vehicles and be charged for that by its Incredible Skies.
It is also important to consider the history of restricted airspace and the way it is currently being allocated in New Zealand. It is conceivable that many of the CAA staff members now tasked with considering these applications were not working there 18 years ago.
The genesis of the granting of restricted airspace to commercial entities is the 2000 America’s Cup regatta in Auckland. That ended up having to be enacted by Parliamentary statute, but the upshot was that the event organiser was granted control of airspace for commercial purposes. The AIA and local users protested and presented to a Select Committee and received undertakings that it wouldn’t set a precedent. This is on the record. Ray Wilson appeared for the Auckland users and we believe the case was supported by Tom Riddell for the AIA.
UA businesses have done an excellent job of capturing officialdom with their ambitions. This is evidenced by the involvement of Callaghan Innovation (read government funding) and the whole-of-government working group that now exists for UA.
It is all very well for the Director to talk about the criteria under which restricted airspace may be established, but he hasn’t mentioned the fact that he has the regulatory power to impose conditions on such airspace.
The airspace applicants are asking for the exclusion of all other aircraft, to enable their operations.
For a GA aircraft to access TM (transponder mandatory) airspace, it must have a serviceable transponder. This is not unreasonable, because it can then be seen by ATC and separated from other traffic.
A mindset adjustment is needed.
The CAA should be required to administer our airspace so that an aircraft wishing to enter any of it is advised of the location of any UA within the vicinity. A UA applicant for restricted airspace should be told that, if they want to use it, they must provide technology which ensures integration and separation from other airspace users.
Exclusion of GA aircraft from a restricted area is not integration. This message needs to be understood.
In uncontrolled airspace, pilots separate themselves on a “see and be seen” principle. If a pilot cannot reasonably expect to see a small UA, operating BVLOS, then it must be encumbent upon the UA operator to maintain separation from other traffic by coming up with a technological solution before being permitted to operate in that environment.