Drone Registration – a big step in the right direction

The good news is that on Saturday 22 July the UK Government announced that in due course, for any drone weighing more than 250gms, registration of the drone, and safety awareness training and testing for the pilot, will become mandatory.

These announcements were contained in a 65 page report snappily titled “Unlocking the UKs high tech economy consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK”.  Alongside this the government also published their “Drones Mid-Air Collision Study”.

We have now read both of these reports several times, and here are our thoughts.

What is Happening, and When?

Q: What is going to happen?

A: The detail is still being worked out. But it appears that the CAA or perhaps the DVLA will be given the task of running the registration process.  Ie. this will not be done at the point of sale, but will rather be an online process.   This follows the scheme that was running until recently in the USA.  The expectation is that education about safety, and a safety awareness test, will be part of the registration process.

Q: When will it happen?

A: The Government says registration will be introduced “in the near future”.

Q: Will it affect me?

A: Most probably yes. The system the Government favours is one where registration is mandatory, and there will be penalties for not registering (how they will spot offenders is anyone’s guess).  The Government also favours this being an operator-centric, rather than a drone-centric registration process.  So it is likely to affect anyone who flies a drone, not just new purchasers of drones.

Q: How hard will it be to pass?

A: We have no information about exactly what will be in the test. But it is likely to be very straightforward indeed. After all, it will need to be pitched at a level where just about anyone can pass it.  And the Report states that it will be focused on safety (rules about where you can fly), security (rules about where you must not fly) and privacy (rules about what you can film).

Q: What will it cost?

A: The Government wants the registration scheme to be as cheap as possible, and to be non-profit making. The scheme previously operating in the USA cost $5, and the scheme operating in Ireland costs 5Euros.  £5 anyone?

Q: Does having a flying lesson with PhantomFlightSchool mean I won’t have to pass the Safety Awareness Test?

A: Sadly no. Because the Safety Awareness Test will be bound up with the Registration process, anyone registering their drone will have to do the Test.  But from the indications in the Report, the things to be covered in the test are exactly the things we cover in the “legislation” section of every lesson we give.

What Impact will this all have?

We welcome what we see as a sensible, well balanced report from the Government, which follows a sensible, well-run, and balanced public consultation. Our assessment is that:

  1. Anything which contributes to the safe flying of drones, and reduces the risk of an accident leading to injury or even loss of life is to be welcomed. Introducing new rules before anything bad has happened has got to be better than a knee-jerk reaction afterwards.
  2. As well as enhancing drone safety, the introduction of registration and safety awareness testing should reassure members of the public that we drone pilots are responsible people who know what we are doing. Once again, a good thing.
  3. We think the proposals do a good job of protecting the future of the drone sector in the UK. Not by stopping the “crazies” who will simply ignore the registration process. But by enhancing the respectability and law-abiding nature of the other 99% of drone pilots.
  4. The key conclusion of the Mid-Air Collision Report is very good news. That a drone the size and weight of a Phantom would most likely “bounce off” a commercial airliner. So the risk of mass casualties from a mid-air collision appears remote.
  5. Another conclusion of the Report is that a Phantom / helicopter collision could be very serious, and could lead to the helicopter crashing. Whilst this would be a terrible thing, and is a key part of the reason why safety awareness training will be mandatory, I don’t believe it would lead to a switch away from the drone-friendly policies being promoted currently by the Government. After all, the Shoreham Airshow crash was a terrible thing. But it did not lead to Airshows being banned.
  6. In practice, one has to wonder how much of an impact the new rules will have on anyone intent on flying dangerously. The Government acknowledges in the Report that electronic tagging of drones, whilst a big goal for the future, remains some years away. So anyone can buy a drone, fail to register it, and then fly it in a dangerous manner / in places they shouldn’t (Old Trafford etc.) from 2 – 3 miles away, safe in the knowledge that they are more or less uncatchable.
  7. Will registration dampen demand for drones? I suspect it may dampen demand, especially for cheap, heavy drones. Does anyone spending £75 on a drone weighing more than 250gms want the hassle of registering it and completing a safety awareness test? I dare say that many people in this category will simply fail to register it. But all the same, the impact is bound to be negative. But because registration will not take place at the point of sale, I think it is unlikely to dampen demand for drones very much. At the price point at which DJI drones are sold, I doubt it will have a noticeable impact.
  8. Unfortunately, the announcement made by the Government may lead to negative sentiment towards drone pilots from some quarters. I think the kind of person that felt negative about drones previously will find ammunition for their negativity here, along the lines of “you see, I knew they were dangerous”.
  9. Many people are averse to change, no matter how well intentioned or well executed the change. The model aircraft community, as represented by the BMFA, appear to have objected to every aspect of the new rules. But in the drone sector, change is happening all the time. Consider how big the gap is in performance on every level between the Phantom 4 Pro, and the class-leading Phantom 3 Pro of just 18 months ago. So I welcome these changes, and expect there to be more to come.

See below our choice of the key excerpts from both reports

Unlocking the UKs high tech economy consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/631638/unlocking-the-uks-high-tech-economy-consultation-on-the-safe-use-of-drones-in-the-uk-government-response.pdf

The responses received through this consultation have affirmed the Government’s initial assessment that the introduction of a registration scheme in the near future is the most beneficial option to explore.

Registration will be mandatory for all operators of drones weighing 250g and above.

The Government will [also] proceed with making it mandatory for leisure users of drones of 250g and above in weight to take a basic knowledge test on the law in the UK and how to fly safely.

The Government is making this mandatory because it wants to be clear how important knowing how to fly your drone safely and within the law is. Using a drone can be extremely enjoyable, but users need to be aware of others using the airspace around them as well as those on the ground, be considerate and follow the law.

The Government will begin by developing standards for this test, accompanied by training materials for taking the test, which will cover safety, security and privacy issues. The threshold of 250g has been selected to match that of registration.

The Government is scoping and developing potential amendments to the Air Navigation Order 2016 drone clauses, to make them easier to understand, beginning with suggestions received through this consultation. The Government will plan to implement a fuller update to the Air Navigation Order 2016 drone clauses once the EU has set new rules in this area (currently expected around mid-2018). This is in order to implement all significant changes at once and give businesses clarity.

Drone operators of drones of 250g and above will be required to register their details. This will not, in general, mean that they are required to register individually each of their drones, where these drones are at the lower end of the weight range, for example. This will minimise the burden placed on commercial and committed hobbyist operators who can own, and operate, multiple drones. However, in some cases, depending on where they intend to fly or what kind of operation, or where the drone is heavier, there will be a requirement for drone operators to register each such drone individually. The exact threshold at which a registered operator will be required to register the individual details of their drone will be scoped further before a decision is taken.

It is highly likely that there will be a charge for registration, just as there are charges for undertaking mandatory requirements when you own a car. The Government does not believe it appropriate for the taxpayer to fund the costs of regulating drones, as not everybody owns one. The basis of the charge would be to cover the cost of running the scheme. Every effort will be made to keep the process of registration as simple and ‘admin-light’ as possible, which will reduce the charge required.

When undertaking registration it will likely also be necessary to complete relevant mandatory educational requirements. The combination of these two requirements into one process will be done if it is assessed that this will save time, reduce overall costs and increase compliance. The Government will also explore ways for these requirements to be undertaken online and through smartphone apps to make the process as easy to comply with as possible.

Drone Mid-Air Collision Study report

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/628092/small-remotely-piloted-aircraft-systems-drones-mid-air-collision-study.pdf

For airliners, the test results are more reassuring – only a much heavier drone of above around 2kg in weight would cause critical damage and only when airliners fly at higher speeds, which is commonly done at heights where these drones are not flown or can easily reach.

We are proud of our partnership with the CAA in their 400ft Britain drone photography competition.  Which has been a storming success.  More than 1,000 high quality entries. As showcased by The SUN Newspaper today, 17 January 2017.  Competition closes end January.  Hurry – 1st prize is a PhantomFlightSchool drone holiday!

Here’s how The Economist covered the news that Hamburg’s new Concert Hall is about to open:

After a six year delay and massive cost overruns, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, or Elbphilharmonie, will finally open its doors on Wednesday.  The stunning building was designed by the Swiss Architects, Herzog and de Meuron, and has become Hamburg’s most talked about landmark.

It has already passes a big test: musicians from its orchestra-in-residence were moved to tears by the acoustics after their first rehearsal.

Hamburg’s latest architectural gem seems poised to become one of the world’s most celebrated classical music venues.

Yes but what has this got to with drones?  Watch the movie to see how a Concert Hall looks from the eyes of a Racing Drone!

There has been more interest from new and existing customers around the launch of the Mavic Pro than we have experienced with the launch of any DJI drone, ever. The excitement has been mixed with an increasing amount of frustration, as delivery date promises have been broken, timelines have slipped, and only tiny quantities of the Mavic Pro have shipped.

So you can imagine how happy we were when our first Mavic Pro arrived here at the end of last week (2 December). But I was so busy with the UK Drone Show and then flying lessons that today (8 December) was my first opportunity to actually fly it.

So how was the Mavic Pro to fly? In a word – AMAZING.

The Mavic Pro certainly looks the part. In your hand it is compact, solid, and beautifully constructed. But it is once you take off that the magic really begins.

It is almost silent. As steady as a rock in the air.  And the flight controls are beautiful.  Even better than the Phantom 4 and the Inspire.  The way it responds to stick inputs is sublime.  It picks up speed very rapidly, and with no fluster.  It maintains altitude no matter what you do in terms of pitch and yaw, perfectly.  I felt more in control of the flight path with the Mavic Pro than with any other drone I have flown.  Half way through the flight, I found myself flying fast, much closer to the ground than I would feel comfortable with my Phantom 4 or Inspire 1, with a broad grin on my face.  Oops Proto – playing catch with an expensive camera!

Even Sport Mode is not the “monster raving looney party” experience that it sometimes feels like with the Phantom 4. Just a very fast way of getting around the sky.  And because of its dark colour, I was able to keep it in sight when flying all the way out to 300 metres from where I was standing – about the same distance where I start to struggle to spot my Phantom.  Battery life was every bit as good as we have been led to expect.  Landing it is a doddle, because the VPS system keeps it locked on as you reduce height.  And interestingly, in a new innovation, with the left joystick pulled only part of the way down, the Mavic stops about 30cms above the ground.  Then, when you pull the joystick all the way back, there is a small “click”, and the Mavic auto-lands and switches itself off.  Very neat.

As a flying experience, this was a Spinal Tap moment. It definitely scored 11 out of 10.

So it is the Ultimate Drone then? Well, sadly, no. 

Unfortunately, I have some issues with the Mavic Pro. One set of problem has to do with the compromises inevitable in miniaturising a full-featured drone.  And there is another class of problem where DJI appear to have made life more difficult than it needs to be.

Miniaturisation issues:

  • Obviously, everything about the Mavic and its transmitter is mini. That means it is also fiddly. Perhaps I have butchers fingers (alright, I know I have butchers fingers), but everything to do with the transmitter is just a bit smaller than I would like it to be for ease of use
  • The gimbal lock is a nightmare to put on and take off. Not the large plastic cowl designed to protect the camera when the drone is in your backpack rubbing shoulders with your sandwich lunch, which works fine. The tiny sliver of plastic that slots down behind the camera to keep it secure in transit. Makes the Phantom 3 gimbal lock (for those of you who remember it) look like a doddle by comparison. And I just know I am going to lose it. Probably soon
  • Because of its small size, it sits very close to the ground when you put it down. So its downward facing sensors are just millimetres off the deck. Because the props are so close to the underside of the body, hand launching and catching are out of the question. That means you need a very smooth, flat surface, to take off from. So although the drone is tiny, you are going to have to take some kind of launch pad with you wherever you go
  • The image quality you can capture with the camera just isn’t as good as on the Phantom. I will be putting some photos and video up on Vimeo soon to show people. But for now, trust me on this. If you have never looked at any other aerial imagery, the results look spectacular. But compared against the results I get every day with my other drones, they fall short. Colours look a bit artificial. Solar flare when pointing the camera at the sun appears as an annoying green dot, rather than as an attractive “line of beads”. Etc.
  • Finally, I don’t like flying using an iPhone (even an iPhone 6+). I prefer flying with my iPad mini. I know there are ways and means of making the transmitter work with an iPad mini, but it is awkward.

Shoot yourself in the foot, why don’t you DJI:

  • It is really hard to turn the transmitter on and off. Even after five days, it is still taking me several goes to achieve this
  • Once you have your iPhone in the clamp under the transmitter, it is almost impossible to reach the “home” button on the phone. Which is as annoying as hell
  • The User Manual is very light in some areas. Especially on the vital importance of focusing the camera manually in order to get good results. Whereas with the Phantom 3 & 4, and the Inspire 1, leaving the camera in “auto” is a sure-fire way to great results, focusing the camera on the Mavic Pro is essential to get results that aren’t unusably blurry. Yet there are just two lines on this in the manual. Not good
  • The DJI Go 4 app (required for the Mavic Pro) appears to be even more power hungry than the vanilla DJI Go app. My iPhone dropped 25% in one, fifteen minute flight
  • Worst of all, the DJI Go 4 app in its present form appears glitch-ridden. I wonder whether this is why DJI have been holding back on shipping the Mavic Pro? It took me several attempts to do the initial firmware update. If you think about the number of these I have done over the last two years, I worry that new drone owners might fall completely at this hurdle. And when I was flying, nothing I tried could persuade the compass in the bottom left hand corner of the screen to point in the direction the drone was pointing. I’m okay with that, because I was flying somewhere I am very familiar with, and I know how to fly without this information. But flying somewhere new, or flying very far from me, I need the compass to work. As do people just starting out on their drone adventure.

My Personal Conclusion

For me, at the moment, the DJI Mavic Pro is therefore a Flawed Genius, not the Ultimate Drone. Some of the problems, with the app, with the auto-focus, will be fixed by DJI in forthcoming firmware updates, I am sure. But the compromises DJI have had to make to get the Mavic down to its tiny size we are stuck with. At least until a Mavic Pro 2 arrives.

So if I could only have one drone, it wouldn’t be the Mavic Pro. It would be the Phantom 4, or if I could stretch to it, the formidable Phantom 4 Pro.

As a second drone, or if portability is the only thing that matters to you, then the DJI Mavic Pro is a tour de force. I know I will be taking one with me if / when I go away on holiday. It is so compact, taking it on tour becomes a no-brainer. And I know that like everything with DJI, it will simply get better and better as time goes on. The speed at which DJI innovates continues to take my breath away.

Alan Proto 8 December 2016

Helen Pidd, Technology Reporter for The Guardian Newspaper, came to the UK Drone Show at the NEC on 4 December.  As well as talking about drone racing, she interviewed our own Alan Proto, about flying lessons, and how much fun it is taking drone enthusiasts on holiday to Spain to fly their drones.  As he said to her “It just struck me that flying drones can be quite a lonely pursuit. Standing in a field in England on your own is not as fun as much fun as standing in a field in Spain with five soon-to-be mates”.

Read the full article HERE