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Regulatory progress to strengthen drone industry

The head of the world’s largest commercial trade organisation for the drone industry is confident that greater cohesion from a standards and regulatory perspective will further enhance the industry’s prospects in the power sector.

Robert Garbett, Managing Director of Drone Major Group, the connectivity platform specialist and consultancy, chairs a new UK body linked with the British Standards Institute, which is introducing standards geared to facilitating the industry.
Robert Garbett of Drone Major
“Over the last three years the international community has been developing standards for the drone industry, helping to provide an underlying safety quality standard. It’s a two-pronged approach ” product and operations.”

“With product, we’re providing standards which, If the manufacturers follow them, the product should be safe to operate.”

“On the operations side, we are providing a standard where if you operate a product in this way it’s been operated safely. When you overlay those two things you get what’s called, in the air world, à‚ airworthiness essentially making the whole use of these systems as safe as possible.”

Garbett told Power Engineering International that in the past there were ‘no real standards’ mainly because the speed at which the industry has developed left standards makers regulators lagging behind.

“There’s often a disparity between the two,” Garbett says. “There hasn’t been much in the way of anything underpinning the industry to push it forward and allow people to do the things that they want to do.”

The arrival of the standard is set to stabilize the industry, providing a level of assurance for drone practitioners, and helping regulators to identify best practice. It will also serve to entice more investors into the industry. Garbett believes tighter regulation based on robust standards will make for a ‘powerful injection’ for the sector generally.

The now 30-strong UK committee has taken its lead from the work being done at international level, and its helped inform national standards around training, as well as registration and identification and has plans to develop additional standards in the areas of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems, testing protocols and many more.

Drone Major itself operates as the connectivity between stakeholders in the industry across environments, from surface (ground and marine), underwater, air and space. The platform provides services to buyers and suppliers of drones throughout the world, including help for buyers to navigate the rapidly increasing applications for drones, with advice on what is possible, what is available and who supplies it.

“In the centre of that Drone Major Group sits as the only independent entity in the world that connects and services the entire industry globally.”

Drone Major is active in the power and utilities space, a sector that has only relatively recently woken up to the promise held by UAVs.

A recent client from the sector manages power stations in 20 countries and needed to streamline their test and inspection regime. It benefited from Drone Major’s introductions to relevant suppliers, based on their needs.

An exciting development that hasn’t gone unnoticed in a sector keen to cut the costs of such inspections involves the emergence of drones capable of live video capability.

“Traditionally you had drones sent up to inspect power lines and take lots of video and photos of the infrastructure and the info is given to a third party to process.”

“There are now manufacturers who have developed drones that can do that processing live on board. It brings up another possibility, which is your repair drone- we have suppliers who can provide live repair systems using metallic, polymer, ceramic, almost like a 3D print facility. A drone can get close to infrastructure and repair it.”

An area connected to better regulation, that had been causing concern, centred on the bona fides of personnel operating drones. Garbett believes that such is the pace of technology that such concerns may no longer be relevant.

However he does acknowledge the need for operators to meet certain standards in the short term.

“At the moment there is a disparity between NVQs that provide this training for air operators and what we try to do is standardise and ensure its of a high quality. This includes raising standards for operator training.”

“The other side of this is more technical. We are seeing more of a move towards autonomous operations where really the pilot’s involvement is limited to landing the craft, should something go wrong.”

In effect, Garbett believes, the qualifications and experience of the operator will reduce in importance, with the emerge of better autonomous systems.

“These drones will, through the development of an algorithm, be able to perform missions accurately every single time and be able to sense the environment.”

The nature of the technology also makes redundant the need for certification. Although aircraft have a rigorous certification process throughout lifespan, with much spend on certifying all materials and components and testing protocol surrounding these, the lifespan of a typical drone is 18 to 36 months, making spend on such a process less justifiable.

Just as with the oil and gas, rail or agricultural industries, the regulations being put together have a separate annex for the unique nature of the power industry. It means highlighting the technical and safety requirements specific to the sector.

The power sector has had something of an awakening in recent years, with regard to the usefulness of drones. In the old traditional model, and a long unbroken time of plenty, margins were such that such technology didn’t figure. However, with utilities never under as much pressure, the rationale is now very clear.

“I can’t talk for the energy industry but what I can say is there are undeniable and compelling cost savings for using drones. For testing, inspections of power lines and power stations, that awakening comes from the evolution of the technology, probably the most rapid evolution of the technology mankind has experienced. It’s driven by industries like power and construction seeing the cost and safety befits long term.”

“There may be a marginal safety saving on short term savings, but in long term expansion its huge.”