Unless you come from a manned aviation background it's very easy to look at your first flight chart and wonder if there is anywhere left that you can fly! The secret is to be able to strip them down and understand what sections are relevant to you as a UAV operator.
It's easy to look at a flight chart as a two-dimensional image. The real skill comes through being able to visualise it in three dimensions. Divisions between airspace will have an upper and lower level, and understanding this distinction is key to planning a flight effectively.
Assuming you are going to be operating below 400ft above ground level (AGL), much of the marked airspace will not apply to you. As interesting as it is to look at, what happens over 19,500ft shouldn't be too much of a concern!
More pressing are areas where the lower limit is between ground level (usually referred to as SFC, or surface) and 500ft AGL. There are a variety of resources when it comes to flight charts.
All have their own benefits and drawbacks, and we've found a balanced approach using several of them to be best. They also lead nicely into our next section on controlled airspace and identifying where these areas are, and who is responsible for them, which is a crucial aspect of pre-flight planning.
Often supplied laminated, these charts are predominantly aimed at manned aviation but can be very useful for drone pilots. Hard copy charts can be spread over a desk, provide a wealth of information and are resistant to power outages and loss of signal! The downside is that by their nature they are not interactive and will need updating over time.
When used in conjunction with a .kmz overlay Google Earth is a surprisingly powerful planning tool. The capability to apply (or remove) different categories of airspace over the traditional bird's eye view can be very useful. As with physical flight charts, these overlays will require updating to ensure they remain current.
A fantastic free resource which displays airfield information, hazards and airspace classification.
It will allow you to plot a route and display detailed information about any considerations that you will need to make, as well as NOTAMs.
SkyDemon is a great free resource to use at the planning stage. Plot a route and it will display hazards, airfield information and NOTAMs.
There have been some reported issues with Chrome and Android browsers but we have had no problems using it within Internet Explorer.
The Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) and its temporary amendments are the most comprehensive source of information available on UK airspace. Due to their size and scope, though, getting to the relevant data can be time consuming and requires a fair bit of patience. For those with previous experience (or a general interest) in aviation it can be a highly informative and fascinating service.
Operating within controlled airspace can be one of the most unnerving aspects of aerial work. As with most things, confidence comes with experience and thorough planning can remove a lot of unnecessary stress.
In the countries such as the UK there is some debate over exactly what the most recent EASA publications will do to drone regulations in the future. Currently there are some clear distinctions for UAVs in terms of maximum take-off mass (MTOM) and the procedures for flying in controlled airspace.
Operators of drones in the 7-20kg category are required to seek Non-Standard Flight or Enhanced Non-Standard Flight (NSF / ENSF) approval for all flights within controlled airspace.
As for the UK, in addition drones of any size require ENSF approval for flights within the restricted airspace over Central London. These approvals are administered by NATS and the relevant forms can be accessed through its website.
On the face of it the regulations would suggest that drones in the up to 7kg category can operate unhindered in most controlled airspace. In our opinion that could be a dangerous assumption to make. While you may have the right to operate in a given location it does not absolve you of the responsibilities that go with it.
One of the fundamental principles of your PFAW is satisfying yourself that a safe flight can be made each and every time, through a comprehensive safety assessment and robust operating procedures.
The CAA guidance is that: "UAV operators must, as a minimum, develop procedures which provide for the emergency notification of the relevant ATM agencies in the event that guidance of a UAV is lost or significantly restricted."
In practical terms, if a flight was to go wrong and you hadn't communicated with the relevant Air Traffic Control (ATC) or aerodrome, could you argue that you had completed a full safety assessment?
In our experience the best approach is to communicate with whoever is responsible for the airspace you are flying within, or close to.
Using the air chart resources correctly should help you to identify controlled airspace as well as other sites where the probability of aerial traffic is higher (gliders, parachutists, microlight pilots etc.).
The AIP at NATS provides contact details for the majority of aerodromes. For some of the smaller sites you may have to dig a bit deeper, but in most cases a simple Google Search will be productive.
When dealing with ATC or aerodromes remember that they will often have a lot going on. so resist the urge to bombard them with phone calls! It's useful to contact them at least a few days before your flight just to find out what basic information they will need from you.
In many cases they won't be too concerned about low MTOM UAVs operating below 400ft AGL. Where they do require more it is usually clear and concise information that they want: latitude and longitude coordinates, height AGL and operating times.
They may ask you to call back at an agreed time to confirm your intentions and take your contact details in the event that they have to clear airspace in an emergency situation.
While you may not technically have to ask for permission to fly over someone's land, we've found that things usually flow a lot more smoothly when you have a good relationship with different agencies. Like most things in life, being courteous and professional will go a long way to making your drone operations easier.
Trying to find a workable compromise is generally going to get better results than digging your heels in over your airspace rights. If you are going to be working regularly near an airfield why not offer to drop in for a chat? Once people are aware of your procedures and credentials they're usually a lot more accommodating.
Always keep copies of documents, emails, signatures and so on as evidence that you took reasonable steps to complete your due diligence checks.
Communicate clearly and politely with anyone with the potential to be affected by your operation. You may not need their permission but their cooperation could be very welcome on a number of levels.
Remember your responsibilities regarding Data Protection and Privacy Laws when handing over images to a client. Common sense and experience should guide your decisions.
If you are struggling to find out who owns, or is responsible for, a site then there are some steps you can take. A Land Registry service will allow you to search by address and by map.
You will have to pay a small fee if they hold relevant details and you want to access them. Other less formal options are asking in local shops pubs etc.. checking local news archives and talking to neighbours or tenants.
Geofencing is becoming more commomplace in consumer drones. Before YOU travel to a site make sure you understand the limitations that this may place on your operations, and any steps you need to take.
Always have an emergency plan in place for airspace incursion, Having clearance to operate is no guarantee that the skies will remain empty for you.
Keep a record of people agencies vou have dealt with on previous operations. Blinding good relationships will increase your contacts and provide a good knowledge base for the future.
AGL: Above Ground Level
AIP: Aeronautical Information Publication
AIS: Aeronautical Information Service
ATZ: Aerodrome Traffic Zone
CTR: Controlled Traffic Region
EASA: European Aviation Safety Authority
ENSF: Enhanced Non-Standard Flight
MATZ: Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone
MTOM: Maximum Take-off Mass
NOTAM: Notice to Airmen
NSF: Non-Standard Flight
NQE: National Qualified Entity
PFAW: Permission for Aerial Work
UAS: Unmanned Aerial System
UAV: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle