Sent into the air equipped with cameras, RPAS for purely commercial purposes are still against the law in Belgium. But some companies are ignoring the regulation and blaming the government for its outdated legislation.
Last summer, about 15 enterprises and knowledge institutions using RPAS for civilian purposes launched the Belgian Unmanned Aircraft System Association (BeUAS) to improve communications between the sector and the federal government. The primary goal of the BeUAS is to draft a legal framework adapted to the industry so that the sector can take off in full flight.
RPAS are often associated with military services, but the police use RPAS as well – recently a cannabis plantation was spotted in a Limburg cornfield by an unmanned aircraft. Several Flemish institutions, like Ghent University and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito), employ and develop RPAS. The archaeology department of UGhent deploys RPAS as a new and inexpensive method of taking low-altitude aerial photographs and creating 3D computer models of archaeological sites. Vito is examining the contributions of RPAS in gathering information on many of today’s environmental questions.
There are also ever-more young, dynamic Flemish enterprises active in the development and operation of RPAS, but the regulations state that they can only launch their high-tech aircrafts for the purposes of research, tests, demonstrations and training. Strictly commercial operation is illegal, which, says BeUAS, is impeding the development of the industry.
Local legislation will serve as example
“Purely commercial use is still prohibited in Belgium because the aviation law is not adapted yet to regulate the safe operation of these aircrafts without human pilots on board,” explains Thomas De Spiegelaere of the federal Public Service of Mobility and Transport, which has been working on a legal framework since the end of last year.
“We realise the urgency for clear definitions of proper working standards, but as there are no thorough international models to rely on, and there is a large variety of different types on the market, our pioneering work takes some time.”
The emergence of the BeUAS, he says, “has helped our work, and when the full legislative package is ready in a few months, it will serve as an example for the rest of the world. It will not just regulate the technical requirements of the devices but also the working and training of the operators.”
A few elements are clear already: RPAS should only operate in airspace where there is no common air traffic. They will be forbidden from flying over urban areas because of the possible danger to the population. After detailed analysis, companies and institutions can receive permits for specific tasks with certain types of aircraft, so that they don’t have to file a request each time for similar projects. Operators will have to follow official training programmes and obtain certificates that prove they have the essential skills to safely control the aircraft.
Working out of bounds
There are, however, member companies of BeUAS that feel they cannot wait for the government. Cammotion, based in Berlaar, Antwerp province, is a specialist in aerial photography, filming and inspection using RPAS technology. The enterprise has carried out projects for government departments like the Flemish agency for roads and traffic but also purely commercial assignments for property developers, architecture bureaus and the media.
Cammotion’s RPAS is a small type of helicopter with eight rotors that keep it stable in the air. The company also has special expertise in the inspection of sites and recently inspected the chemical plant Fina Antwerp Olefins. Their services are popular because they are much quicker, efficient and cheaper than the hiring of a helicopter and pilot.
“When we started two years ago, we asked the Public Service of Mobility and Transport about the procedure to get an official permit,” says Matth Mouling of Cammotion, “but we were told there were none yet available. It’s not our fault that the Belgian government has not yet adapted its aviation legislation. In the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, we didn’t have any problem obtaining licenses.”
Mouling says Cammotion has never received fines or complaints and stresses that they take the maximum safety precautions: “The person operating the drone is a professional helicopter pilot, who never flies it over people, nor above 150 metres high and thus does not bring helicopters or airplanes into danger. The drone always remains in his line of sight, inside 300 metres, and we don’t fly when the wind speed reaches more than four Beaufort. We also limit the duration of a flight to 12 minutes. Hopefully, such kind of standards will soon become official and obligatory.”
Certain areas off-limits
De Spiegelaere says that Mobility and Transport is aware that some companies break the rules out of ignorance or – like Cammotion – ignore them. They have not fined Cammotion yet but have warned the company about the illegality of its commercial operations: “We especially do not approve of Cammotion’s inspection at the chemical plant Fina Olefins in the port of Antwerp. Just like airports and military centres, ports are risk areas with strategic importance for a country, and RPAS operations there will be illegal under the new legislation.”
When an enterprise wants to deploy RPAS legally, it has to send a request to Mobility and Transport. Ghent company Flight Plus launched earlier this year to manage this administration for RPAS clients. “Originally, our priority was to offer services such as organising flight plans for manned aviation, but the demand from the unmanned aviation sector was so large that it’s now our main market, explains Jürgen Verstaen, deputy general manager of Flight Plus and vice-chairman of BeUAS.
“It takes about two weeks to draw up a detailed request, and it takes the public service another two weeks to analyse whether all safety conditions are met and to take preventive measures, such as warning the aviation community,” explains Verstaen. Flight Plus is working to help the government avoid this lengthy procedure for each case by creating certificates for enterprises and institutions that have proven their trustworthiness.
Easter Island and hurricane Sandy
One of the clients of Flight Plus is Gatewing, also from Ghent, which developed the revolutionary X100 RPAS technology. The X100 (pictured) is a winged aircraft fitted with a camera that flies autonomously with a GPS. It can reach an altitude of 750 metres and a distance of five kilometres from its operator on the ground.
The X100 is mainly active in topographic mapping, such as surveying the progress in open mines, and infrastructure mapping, like inspecting road works, bridges, canals and flooded areas from the air. Gatewing works for industries in countries such as Canada and South Africa, where there are no legislative obstacles.
The X100 has been used for research on Easter Island and, more recently, by the American government to map the consequences of hurricane Sandy. Gatewing will soon also provide a service in the inspection of crops to determine, for example, where insecticides are necessary.
“Hopefully, we can also offer our commercial services in our home country soon,” says Michael Maes, Gatewing’s Flight Operations Officer and chairman of BeUAS. “The innovative RPAS sector could provide a real boost to the economy.”
Source: Flanders Today