Commercial Remotely Piloted Aircraft

Written by Kelvin Hutchinson, Published in Australian Pilot Magazine.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are the official ICAO terms for aerial robots. The general public and media love to call them drones, maybe because it makes them sound more sinister and dramatic.

So what is an UAS or RPAS? Basically it involves a computer (Ground Station), operational software for datalink and sensorlink, a payload – a deployable device, camera or sensor and either a fixed wing, helicopter or multirotor type device.

RPAS in general are computer controlled. RPA pilots are trained to manually control an RPA in the event of an emergency. Being a robot and programmed to undertake a specific mission, RPA they will do exactly as programmed. With the human element minimized the mission is likely to be much more accurate and safer. Numerous operational failsafe’s are built into the RPA autopilot. Return to home, land now, orbit now can be activated automatically if the RPA looses contact with the base station. The RPA autopilot can detect when the battery onboard only just has sufficient life to get the RPA home and will automatically return the RPA to the take off point and land it.

The type of RPA you choose to operate depends on the business model you choose and also the anticipated mission type. It is not a ‘one type fits all’ situation unless you are an owner operator with only one intended function, such as crop monitoring.

If you need to cover a large area for agricultural, mining, surveillance or search and rescue purposes a fixed wing RPA with 2-3 hours endurance might be the best solution. If you need a stable platform to carry sensors, cameras and or deployable devices within smaller areas a Multirotor may be the best choice.

CASA issues Unmanned Operators Certificates (UOCs) to commercial operators based on RPAS weights. 2kg up to 150kg and beyond depends on your operational history (safe operations over time), rigor in your training and operations, safety and risk mitigation procedures and pilot qualifications.

RPA under 2kg are classified by CASA as toys so the operator does not need formal training or a license and the RPA does not need certification. Considering there are thousands of these currently operating in Australia this is a major issue for licensed operators!

CASA also issues licensed operators with strict operational height restrictions. 400 feet AGL is the general height approved unless the pilot and RPAS are approved by CASA to go higher. Most missions over 400 feet need what is called an Area Approval issued by CASA before you can fly. More on this later in the series.

If you decide to apply for a CASA issued UOC your first approval will probably be – visual line of sight, not above 400 feet, VMC and a CASA approved <7kg RPAS (and all that entails). As stated above, a good safe track record, professional procedures and interaction with CASA along with additional RPA pilot (knows as a Controller) qualifications will get you beyond line of sight and >400 feet in airspace undertaking fully autonomous operations. Make sure you consider this if you decide to start an RPAS business!

There are a number of good quality <7kg fixed wing RPAS on the market. You will pay between $2500 and $80,000 for an entire system and then there is the payload. Remember the payload is what makes the money. The RPA is simply an affordable delivery platform. The client does not care how you achieve what they are paying for they just want affordable, timely, quality and meaningful results.

The same applies for multirotors. Good platforms range from $5000 to $35,000.

Commercial multirotor operators tend to use either hexacopters or octocopters. These RPAS can still operate if one of the motors stops. Essential for saving what can be $20,000 sensors and other types of payloads.

The above prices include the RPA, autopilots, software and sensor deployment systems such as gimbals or retractable devices used on fixed wing RPA. The prices also include basic FPV (First Person View) video systems to monitor progress during a mission.

Ground stations with datalink trackers (extends a datalink signal out to 50nm) vary in price from $15,000 to $50,000 depending on the degree of sophistication and the autopilot and ground station software involved.

Tools, batteries, chargers, spare parts, shade structures, tables and chairs, custom trailers, generators and the like will cost up to $20,000. You will need them!

The current challenge for RPAS operators wanting to fly beyond visual line of sight and above 400 feet is the CASAs (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) possible requirement that an automated ‘sense and avoid’ solution be installed to detect and fly the RPA around other aircraft. VHF Radios and transponders, linked back to the base station operator, may also be a requirement for larger RPAS.

Next month we will look at what is involved in flying a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System.

Kelvin Hutchinson is involved in general aviation and a wide range of RPAS operations based out of Warwick Aerodrome in Queensland. Contact Kelvin at or 0407733836.

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