Captain's Table

Mark Austen

2019.12.31 - Life Long Dreams

My lifelong dream has been to learn to fly a helicopter. Ever since I found out what a helicopter was I've wanted to fly one. But it is expensive and after an accident in my teens my balance has not been so good and there has never really been the time or money to achieve this dream. But isn't the quote from Robert Browing "A man's reach should exceed his grasp/or what's a heaven for?"?

I have bought and flown a radio controlled (RC) electric helicopter, but despite it being great fun I found myself preferring to use the helicopter model simulator on my computer instead. There were too many things that could go wrong with the model, the blades needed to be balanced, it was too easy to tip it over when landing and break the blades, if there were people around flying was stressful, you needed to have a wide open space on a relatively windless day and so on and in the end I sold the model and just used the simulator.

Over the last ten years or so multi-rotor RC models have become popular. Most of these are quadcopters but a few are hexcopters with six rotors and some with even more. The price of these had dropped as the popularity has grown and I find myself in the position to be able to afford one.

As many of you may know I have a small sailing boat and sail on the local river when the weather is suitable. Downstream from the moorings where I keep my boat is a sluice and beyond that the river is tidal and more complicated to navigate. The main problem is the mud banks in the upper sections of this tidal stretch of the river.

About twenty-five years ago some kind soul published a book of hand-drawn sketches of the river with various land marks visible from the water and the locations of the mudbanks. You cannot get this anymore and it is well out of date but even so, a number of the members of the Cruising Club still use this guide having noted the changes in the positions of the mudbanks in pencil at the beginning of each season.

During a Club Social a few months ago we were discussing the possibility of using a quadcopter, or drone and they are also known, to fly down the upper sections of the river at low tide and photograph the mud banks so that the members could have an up to date reference. One of our members owns company that also flies drones commercially and suggested that this might be a good way to go. But nothing came of this for one reason or another.

Still, it go me to thinking that if I learnt to fly a drone then I could do this and I would also be able to fly a drone for fun. And, although it isn't flying a helicopter, it is perhaps as close as I am likely to get these days.

To cut a very long story short, I bought a drone. Well, two, one small indoor drone and a cheap outdoor drone. I have had great fun over the last few weeks flying these. The indoor one is much harder to fly that the other as it is not GPS enabled with other fancy stabilisation but it is great to use when the weather is not suitable for flying outside. Tina mentioned a few days ago that I now had a hobby that I could do when the weather was not suitable for sailing, and that is true. When the wind is fair I sail. With zero wind I fly a drone outside and when it is too windy to fly outside or sail, I can fly a drone inside!

Drones have been in the news recently, the most notable being the Gatwick Incident of Christmas 2018. It is amazing to realise that over the three days of the event, with 140,000 people stranded at the airport most of whom would have cameras if only in their mobile phones. With the press camping out in their legions and legions of police and army personnel patrolling the area, there is not a single substantiated sighting of an unauthorised drone.

Not a single one.

The CAA's report mentioned that there were 129 reported sightings of which 109 were credible (I might have the exact numbers wrong here but that is the sort of range) and none of those were of drones that should not have been there. The authorities were using their own drones to try and find the pilot of the alleged unauthorised drone.

Nobody found anything.

Gatwick went up for sale that week and as a result of this incident the share price plummeted and so did the sale price.


Personally, I think not.

Still, is is a very interesting time to take up drone flying as a hobby since from 1st July 2020 Britain will be adopting the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) regulations for drones despite out not being part of the European Union as from the end of June 2020, the CAA made the wise decision to adopt the rules anyway.

A drone, by the way, in case you didn't already know, is any unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV something also called a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) be it model aeroplane, helicopter, multi-rotor or such like with the exception of tethered balloons and kites.

At present, in order to use a drone to earn money you need to have Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) from the CAA. This requires you to attend a costly course, pass an exam, develop an operations manual, take a practical flight test and then submit your manual to the CAA who then audit the manual and eventually you get your PfCO, renewable every year for a fee and audit by the CAA.

As from 1st July 2020 you don't need to do any of this to earn money from your drone. The regulations are not concerned about why you are flying a drone, just that you do so safely. You may still need to get a certificate but this will depend on how close you will need to be flying to uninvolved people.

There are also a number of interesting new drones coming onto the market and the CES technology exhibition in Las Vegas in January is traditionally the place where new drones are displayed and launched. One has already been leaked whilst it was getting FAA approval and it looks to be a stunning drone. So much so that the worlds leading drone manufacturer, DJI, with nothing like it ready to go, will probably start a price war in order to keep selling its own drones whilst it gets its act in gear and produces a competitive drone. This in turn, along with the perceived tightening of drone regulations, has resulted in many drones being offered for sale at very good prices.

Just before Christmas I purchased a second outdoor drone, £2100 of drone and associated equipment for a mere £800, plus £14 shipping. A fantastic bargain and this will last me for the two and a half years before the EASA regulation become permanent, there is a two year transition period from 1st July 2020, after which I will only be able to fly my drones far away from 'people, vehicles, vessels and structures not under my control'.

By that time I'm hoping that the world's drone manufacturers will have produced a new set of drones for the recreationally market that conform to the EASA regulations.

We shall see.

In the meantime I'm having great fun flying the drones and reading up on modern photography and videography techniques since multi-rotor drone are, in effect, flying cameras!

Watch this space.