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Using drones safely and legally on-farm

Long time Farmers guardian contributor Geoff Ashcroft has been undertaking training to ensure he is able to use a drone safely and legally. He reports here on what he has learned.

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Unmanned aircraft systems explained

There are many terms used to define what many of us refer to as drones. Increasingly, the term unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is being phased out, so that ‘aircraft’ classification is given clear emphasis.


Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and small unmanned surveillance aircraft (SUSA) are more commonly used terms.


Those with an operating mass of 20kg or less are defined as small unmanned aircraft, while those with an operating mass in excess of 20kg are subject to regulation as though they are manned aircraft.

For example, am Agridrone Airinov (pictured) weighs about 0.7kg.

The proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems has led to the Civil Aviation Authority taking a much closer look at their use. And a key question for those using such equipment on-farm need to ask is ‘Do I need a permission for aerial work (PfAW) from the CAA to fly around my farm?


‘Valuable consideration’ is the phrase used by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to determine any gain you may make from work undertaken.


In simpler terms, if, because of small unmanned aircraft flying, you are better off at the end of the day than when you started, you have probably been doing aerial work. And any flight is considered aerial work if it is undertaken for valuable consideration.


Grey area

While this might seem a bit woolly, it does throw up the issue of growers using small unmanned aircraft for data collection and aerial surveillance of their fields, for example.


The Air Navigation Order (2009) prohibits unmanned aircraft from flying in congested areas, flying close to people or property, flying for aerial work purposes, or flying beyond visual line of sight unless permission has been given by the CAA.


Essentially, the person controlling a small unmanned aircraft system is fully responsible for the safe operation of any flight. Call it best practice, if you will.


If it all went wrong, and you had an unmanned aircraft fly-away with disastrous consequences, could you stand in front of a judge and say you had done all that was reasonably possible to fly safely?


While permission is not required for practice or demonstration flights, the other requirements of articles 166 and 167 within the Air Navigation Order must still be complied with (see panels lower down).


So how do you get permission for aerial work (PfAW)?

So how do you get permission for aerial work (PfAW)?

Before the CAA will grant a permission, some proof of the pilot’s overall airmanship skills and awareness and their ability to operate the aircraft safely will be required.


This is not a civil pilots licence, but it is an independent assessment of an individual’s knowledge and operating capabilities. It is also a means for the CAA to ensure that everyone has at least the same basic knowledge.


The best place to start is the Civil Aviation Authority website. Here, you will find a list of national qualified entities that are CAA-approved for training purposes.


I chose to attend a three-day course with Oxfordshire-based Aerial Motion Pictures run by ex-military pilot Matt Williams. And I am pleased to report that I have so far completed and passed the theoretical element of its Icarus course.


At a cost of £1,500, this intense training scheme gives a thorough understanding of air law, meteorology, airspace and operating principles, operator responsibilities and airmanship, navigation and flight planning.


Course contents

The course also touches on the need for an operations manual and risk assessment, and provides an appreciation of the UK’s military low flying system.


In the resulting exam, you will need a pass mark of 80 per cent to progress. Once my operations manual has been completed and submitted for approval, the final phase of the course will be a flight test. On successful completion of this operating evaluation, I should be recommended to the CAA for a PfAW.


You will need to prove suitable insurance – Cover Drone has policies starting from £630 – and aerial work permissions will need to be renewed annually.


It is easy to check to see that those you are using are suitably trained and insured - all UAS operators granted a permission for aerial work are listed on the CAA’s website. And any reputable operator should be able to show you their operations manual, CAA permission and valid insurance.

Air Navigation Order 2009

Air Navigation Order 2009

Article 166: Small Unmanned Aircraft

1. A person shall not cause or permit any article or animal (whether or not attached to a parachute) to be dropped from a small aircraft so as to endanger persons or property.
2. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.
3. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions.
4. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft which has a mass of more than 7kg excluding its fuel but including any articles installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight, must not fly such an aircraft:
a) in class A, C, D or E airspace unless the permission of the appropriate air traffic control unit has been obtained;
b) within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic unit (if any) at that aerodrome unless the permission of any such air traffic control unit has been obtained; or
c) at a height of more than 122m (400ft) above the surface unless it is flying in airspace described in sub-paragraphs (a) or (b) above in accordance with the requirements of that airspace.
5. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must not fly such an aircraft for the purposes of aerial work except in accordance with a permission granted by the CAA.


Article 167: Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft

1. The person in charge of a small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not fly the aircraft in any of the circumstances described in paragraph (2) except in accordance with a permission issued by the CAA.
2. The circumstances referred to in paragraph (1) are:
a) over or within 150 metres of any congested area;
b) over or within 150 metres of any organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons
c) within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft; or
d) subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), within 50 metres of any person.
3. Subject to paragraph (4), during take-off or landing, a small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person.
4. Paragraphs (2)(d) and (3) do not apply to the person in charge of the small unmanned surveillance aircraft or a person under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.
5. In this article ‘a small unmanned surveillance aircraft’ means a small unmanned aircraft which is equipped to undertake any form of surveillance or data acquisition.

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