Written by Kelvin Hutchinson, embedded journalist in the Australian Pilot Magazine.
Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) if operated professionally with well trained pilots and ground crew, quality autopilots and ground station software can be extremely reliable and safe. So what is needed to setup and operate an RPAS business that makes sustainable income?
CASA approved RPAS operators are put through thorough interviews and flight tests, the operator’s RPA will have been tested and certified and extensive operational paperwork systems will have been checked and approved. Regular CASA operational in the field reviews are undertaken to ensure ongoing safety and risk mitigation.
A key consideration for CASA and any operator is kinetic energy and potential impact with human or asset. RPAS commercial operators have to submit a risk and safety case to CASA to show how risk, relative to impact and kinetic energy has been considered and if possible substantially reduced. Selecting an RPAS that will perform and minimize impact risk is important.
Most RPAS operators applying initially to the CASA for an Unmanned Operators Certificate (UOC), who want to secure the approval relatively quickly, apply using a <7kg RPAS that is built out of EPP. EPP (Expanded Polypropylene) is a robust but lightweight foam like material that has far less kinetic energy than fiberglass and with rear mounted motors and props reduces adverse impact risk with humans.
EPP constructed RPAS allows for more weight allocation for payloads. If your RPAS only weighs 4-5kg then generally you will have 1-2kg for endurance (batteries) and payload.
Todays RPAS industry has come about due to the advent of the RPAS autopilot. Autopilots offer stability, accuracy, robotic sophistication and numerous fail-safes. Depending on your RPAS type most autopilots can even automatically takeoff and land the device and fly the mission uninterrupted. GPS linked autopilot software can also turn on and off the cameras at specific locations. Onboard pilot and static sensors allow accurate airspeed assessment and also adjust landing heights automatically based on changing barometric pressures assessments during flight.
RPAS are quite often controlled with transmitters or joysticks during takeoff and within seconds are switched over to ‘Auto’. Auto or autonomous modes mean the RPA flies a mission that has been accurately planned using the ground station software before the flight. Track, height, speed, when the sensors are turned on and off during flight – all failsafes are preset, and how you want the RPAS to land automatically are all programmed using the ground station software program.
Most commercial ground stations also include sensor link technology. RPAS mounted cameras and sensors link to recording equipment and can provide a live video feed on progress during flight.
Ground stations typically have a live 900 MHz Datalink with the RPAS. This means you can change the flight plan, out to 50 nm, during the flight. RPAS missions are monitored live via satellite images showing the RPAS moving on a computer monitor. Joystick controls allow manual take over of the flight at any time during the mission.
Sensor images need processing and interpretation as clients specify. This aspect of any RPAS commercial operation is still the most difficult aspect of the mission. It is time consuming and the file sizes are substantial making it difficult to send files via the internet to clients. Solving this issue relevant to specific industries (agriculture, mining, etc) is the key to success. Carefully consider your options.
The greatest challenge for RPAS operators is ‘beyond visual line of sight’. CASA has strict requirements that for the average RPAS operator may be difficult to achieve. Examples of what may be required include the need for a VHF radio onboard the RPAS that can have its frequencies changes by the controller on the ground during flight. In addition a ‘sense and avoid’ device like a transponder or ADSB that also must be able to be controlled on the ground during flight may be needed. Check with the CASA before you embark on your business plan thinking you will be able to fly any where at any time.
Once you have the RPAS you need, software and systems working as needed, you need to consider the fact you are hauling expensive and bulky technical equipment around the country. Trailers and infield equipment become essential for a successful operation.
Any commercial operation needs at least two people to undertake the mission. The Pilot in Command is in control of the ground station and sensors during missions and a lookout during flights, who can also manually fly the RPAS, is a key member of any team. Most businesses need a reasonably substantial and sustainable cash flow before two fulltime, fully trained staff members or contractors can be employed!
A major consideration is time. I have a workshop dedicated to RPAS with all mod cons, parts, technical equipment and even with all of this I estimate it took 6 months to get setup and operational. Every day we are testing, modifying and developing various robotic devices and testing and adjusting software. Research is ongoing constantly. CASA documentation preparation and the approval and licensing process took over 8 months and is ongoing.
Starting an RPAS business is no different to starting any other new business. You need to be committed, focused, patient and persistent.
Next month we will look at what is involved in developing payloads for RPAS.
Kelvin Hutchinson is involved in general aviation and a wide range of RPAS operations based out of Warwick Aerodrome in Queensland.
Visit the RPA Website and find out more about the RPA Training Academy or Contact Kelvin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0407733836.