Safety is a major concern for enthusiasts within the drone community, the government, and civil and commercial aviation companies in the United Kingdom. While drones offer plenty to be excited about, especially with advancing technologies, there’s still an ever-present risk if the right safety measures aren’t observed or enforced.
Drones have become such an important topic, that government and industry backed organisations like Drone Safe have emerged, helping to spread the awareness of drone safety by providing simple rules and a code of conduct for both private and commercial drone operators.
In the latest news, it appears that the push for safer drone use has so far been a success, with up to 10,000 users signing up for a new NATS (National Air Traffic Services) Drone Assist app that allows for safer piloting through a convenient smartphone app.
Using Innovative Software to Address Some of the Risks of Drone Piloting
The biggest challenge for any drone operator, is finding a location that is both conditionally ideal and safe to fly in. Followers of the Drone Code will know that in rural and lightly populated areas, drones must be flown at distances of at least 50 metres from people and buildings. In more developed areas, the distance increases to 150 metres. Even when operating at safe distances from people and large structures, there are numerous hazards that must be navigated around, including power lines, cellular towers, and other ground objects. Most importantly, operators need to ensure that they’re not operating in the vicinity of larger aircraft like planes or helicopters.
One might imagine that the easiest way to avoid aircraft is to stay away from airports. While this is a requirement of flying a drone (and is included in the Drone Safe Drone Code), there is still a risk of unintentionally operating a drone in airspace being used by light commercial, agricultural, or private aircraft.
For these hazardous situations, NATS has an answer in the form of their new Drone Assist app.
Available for download on both Android and iOS based smartphones, the NATS drone safety app has been download by over 10,000 users since late 2016. These figures are closely representative of actual usage of the app, because the software requires registration for each unique user.
The app provides live ‘fly now’ reports that allow a user to immediately and accurately determine if it’s safe to fly in their area. Because NATS handles air traffic throughout the United Kingdom, the information is always up to date and comes with a high degree of accuracy. The data used to serve the app is being pulled from the same sources that are used for air traffic control and aircraft tracking.
Because drone owners operate their craft at relatively low altitudes of up to 120 metres, the app also displays geographically relevant ground hazard information. So far, the Drone Assist app has been highly successful, and NATS has released some interesting statistics regarding its usage:
- There have been over 70,000 unique interactions where users have checked their local airspace for safe drone piloting conditions.
- Users have investigated over 30,000 ground hazards around the UK. The app allows users to inspect each individual hazard to discover more details.
- More than 5000 user generated ‘Fly Now’ reports have been created from the app. In addition to providing safety information from the NATS database and live sources, users may also submit their own flight reports that can then be shared with the community.
High Downloads and Interactions Suggest the Community is Committed to Safety
In 2016, NATS released figures suggesting that there were up to four near-miss incidents between drones and aircraft, every month. While this number might seem small, the potential for a catastrophic incident is high. Because drones fly at low altitudes, these near misses occur during critical landing and take-off procedures, which is when aeroplanes and helicopters are most vulnerable. Although the organisation hasn’t released any new data for the start of 2017, it is hopeful that the release of the app, as well as a continued push for drone safety, will help to reduce the number of reported incidents in 2017.
If you are a responsible drone pilot, then it’s probably not news to you that the wider drone community is committed to safety. The high number of app downloads and individual in-app interactions provide plenty of evidence for this, and the data from NATS goes a long way towards proving that the majority of owners are committed to flying their devices in safe areas and conditions. This data will be reassuring for those who are not as close to the drone community, such as the general public and even members of parliament.
As the drone market continues to grow, thousands more drone pilots will join the already thriving community. The latest NATS Drone Assist app is a positive step towards safer skies, and the fact that it has been so well received will be reassuring to every invested party. Drones are obviously here to stay, and with a continued push for safety from the government, aviation organisations, and drone pilots, it will be possible to grow the industry without the negative press that could come from high profile incidents.