Captain's Table

Mark Austen

2020.03.31 - Shopping Day

I read on the Tesco website on Sunday that they have instituted a queueing system at all stores to try and regulate the number of people in the store so as to allow people to maintain a 2m separation from each other as well as only opening from 08:00 instead of 06:00 as they had been doing previously. I also noted that they have and OAP/NHS hour from 9am to 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so I decided that instead of shopping on Wednesday morning I would do it today.

I arrived at about 07:45 and sure enough there were about 100 people in a queue which I duly joined after getting myself a trolly. Precisely at 08:00 the first few shoppers were allowed in and about 10 minutes later I was in the store. There were still a few things sold out such as canned pulses but the thing that amused me a great deal with the toilet paper. There was heaps of it, almost literally.

There was so much that the shelves could not hold it all and there were stacks of toilet paper on the floor. Loads of the stuff.

I was sorely tempted to take a photo and post it somewhere with the title of "Shortage? What shortage?"

But I didn't.

2020.03.28 - Permission Granted

I am pleased to announce that I received my Permission for Commercial Operations on Thursday. So I can now use drones to earn "renumeration" and that is great, or would be if the current restrictions didn't make that impossible.

Well, not quite impossible, there is a very, very small chance that we could use the drones commercially if it were necessary to do so. For example, if a builder or surveyor working on a necessary project were to need a drone then we would be able to fulfil that need and earn money despite the restrictions.

The chances of that happening, however, are probably less tan winning the lottery but it is not impossible.

I'm not holding my breath but it would be nice...

Still, congratulations to me for passing all the parts of the PfCO requirements sufficiently well that the CAA had no problem issuing me the permissions.

2020.03.10 - Permission for Commercial Operations

Back in January I decided to bite the bullet, as the saying goes, and registered myself on a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) course with Britain's first 'Recognised Assessment Entity' (RAE), paid my money and the attended the two-day theory course in late February. I passed and I now approach the second part of the four-stage process of gaining my PfCO and that is the flight test.

This involves taking a two-part test, the first part being a job and the second part a series of flight manoeuvres. The 'job' part of the test is set out as though it were a real job and you have to plan and fly as though it were a paid job, along with all the attendant paperwork.

The third part of the process is completing my Operations Manual and the last part is submitting the paperwork from the RAE, my operations manual and a fee to the CAA and hopefully the result of all that will by my PfCO.

Hopefully all this will be done and dusted by the beginning of April.

After that and friend and I plan to make some money from flying drones and this should be interesting. Right now there are many ways of using a drone that can aid industry but not many people know that it can be done. We plan to use the drones for data collection, a catch-all term that covers mapping, surveying, inspections, modelling to name but a few. There are not that many PfCO holders in Britain so there is plenty of work to go round, the problem is finding it. This is where my friend comes in since he is good at marketing and quite willing to go 'knock on doors' to find work.

Should be interesting.

2020.01.19 - Certified Drones

Despite Britain leaving the European Union in a few days time, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will sensibly be adopting the European Aircraft Safety Agency (EASA) regulations for drones.

Right now the final regulations are being nailed down but in essence the regulations divide the Open Category airspace in which recreational and many commercial drones fly, into 3 sub-categories. These are A1, A2 & A3 also described as 'flying over uninvolved people', 'flying near uninvolved people' and 'flying far away from uninvolved people'. The term 'people' means 'people, vehicles, vessels and structures' but that is a mouthful to say so generally the term 'people' is used to mean all of these.
The drones are also divided up into 5 classes, C1-C5 but in order to be in one of these classes, the drone needs to be submitted by the manufacturer to and audited by EASA and receive a certification. All other drones are classed as 'Legacy' and unless they weigh under 250g maximum take-off weight are restricted to the A3 sub-category once the regulations come into force on 1st July 2020.

At present, if you want to fly a drone closer to people than allowed for by the 'Drone Code' you need to have a Permission for Commercial Operations from the CAA or PfCO. If you have a PfCO before 1st July 2020 when the new regulations come into effect, then after that date you can still fly the un-classed, legacy drones in exactly the same way as before. It is, in effect, grandfathering the legacy drones you personally use and as long as you keep your PfCO current by resubmitting your Operations Manual to the CAA each year for auditing and pay the annual fee, then your personal grandfathering will continue.

As at this moment in time, there are no certified drones on the market.

Repeated emails to the major drone manufacturers by concerned pilots asking whether they either intend to submit their current drones for certification or will be building certified drones in the near future has resulted in silence. Not a single reply has been received as far as we can gather from any inquiry on this subject.

There are two main conclusions we can draw from this, one worrying and the other not.

The worrying one is that none of the manufacturers are going to certify their drones. What will happen in Europe in this case remains to be seem. There is a two year transitional period until 1st July 2022 during which time legacy drones may still be used in A1 and A2 sub-categories under certain restricted circumstances but after that drones can only be used in the A3 sub-category.

The other main conclusion is that the drone manufacturers are paying their cards very close to their collective chests. All but one of the major drone producers are Chinese and one of the concepts that non-Chinese people do not really understand is the concept of 'face'.

Here is my take on the situation.

DJI has been the leading and major manufacturer of drones for a number of years until a few days ago when Autel Robotics, a Chinese-owned American company, launched the EVO II which, according to many reviewers, is the 'best prosumer drone on the market'. This was a loss of face to DJI and there are reports of many emergency high-level meetings in DJI headquarters when the features of the EVO II were leaked to the public during the FAA certification application a few months ago. DJI, apparently, does not have a drone that they can bring to the market quickly in order to challenge the new leader.

Now, if DJI were to modify their leading drones to be able to certify them for use in Europe, and it is my opinion that this would mainly consist of software changes to the drone and controller, then this would have the effect of putting the DJI drones back at the top. So DJI may be trying to get this done without anyone being the wiser until their announcement.

Autel Robotics may also be doing the same with either the intention of announcing it first, thus relegating DJI to playing catch-up or to have the announcement ready so that the day after the DJI announcement, when the DJI staff are all congratulating themselves for knocking Autel off the top, the same announcement puts Autel back at the top.

Both of these would have DJI suffering loss of face but which of the two possibilities is the greater loss of face? Autel announcing first or immediately after?

I'd guess that it is the latter but this is something only the Chinese could answer.

Still, my way forward in now quite clear. I wish to be able to take photos and videos from a drone close to boats and people on horses (suitably desensitised to the drone noise) and in order to do that I need to get a PfCO before 1st July so that once the EASA regulations come into force, I can still use my current drones. Fortunately for me, the leading PfCO course supplier is not only offering their two-day course plus flight test and operations manual for half-price but will also give you the EASA A2 Certificate of Competence (A2 C of C) course and test for free.

A bargain.

2020.01.18 - Flying Over Water

The weather station at the bottom of our field indicated that the wind was from the North-West but only around 3 knots so I decided to take the drone over to Naiad where I could check her moorings and then walk along the footpath beside the river until I was well away from people, vehicles, vessels and structures and take the drone out for a spin.

When I reached the club I found that the wind was a lot stronger than at the bottom of our field and freezing cold. I lit the heater in Naiad and had a cup of tea before I went off downstream for a quick flight.

There are a number of things you do before flying a drone like checking the weather, whether there are any restrictions where you intend to fly and also a visual inspection. This is something all pilots do and involves checking the aircraft for damage and things that are wrong. Although drone pilots are remote operators in that we stay on the ground whilst the aircraft flies, a visual inspection is still required.

Here's what I found:

This is one of the four propellors.

A closer look at one of the blades reveals a small split.

Here is a closer view.

Time to replace the prop. Easy to do and I had 4 spares in my bag, two clockwise rotating and two anti-clockwise.

The ground was very soft and muddy and I could not find a clear space upon which to put the landing pad, so I stamped a bit of grass down and just launched from there. I really need to make a neck strap for the controller so that I can operate two sticks with one hand for the motor startup meaning that I could hand launch the drone. Still I got it up in the air and flew around until my fingers got too cold. I hand caught the drone for landing as that only requires the use of one control stick. Then it was back to Naiad to warm up.

Here is a short clip from the flight.

The main difference between this and my previous flights is that the drone camera had a Neutral Density Filter (ND Filter) fitted for this flight and a number 16, which allows only a sixteenth of the normal light into the camera. It's like putting sun glasses on the lens.

The reason for doing this is that this drone has a fixed aperture of f2.8 and I manually set the ISO to 100 and frame rate to 60 frames per second. Now convention dictates that the shutter speed is numerically twice the frame rate meaning that I needed to set the rate to 1/120 second in order to get the correct 'motion blur' when close to the ground. But these settings will result in a completely over-exposed image and hence the ND Filter. The result was quite good, possibly a little under-exposed when flying away from the sun, but not at all bad.

The clip I have shown above is unedited other than cutting out the bits I wanted to show, there have been not white-balance changes or colour compensation.

When you also consider that there wind was blowing at around 15 knots and gusty, the 3-axis gimbal does an excellent job of keeping the camera stead.

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