Commercial drone use is well on its way to becoming commonplace, transforming lives with applications in infrastructure, agriculture, medicine, delivery and many other fields. Drone standards soon to be introduced in the UK are set to strengthen public confidence in the safety, security and compliance of the $20bn global industry.
The publication of the new standards was announced at a House of Lords reception in February. Their development owes a great deal to the chair of the BSI Committee on Drone Standards and Drone Major Group chief executive Robert Garbett.
Having retired from the Army as a Major in the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) he used his experience as chief engineer on Special Forces helicopters to set up Drone Major Group, which aims to offer a one-stop solution for professional drone-related products and services.
Drone standards: creating a Kitemark for UAVs
Garbett was working with Tina Brevitt at the Society for Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS) when she suggested he contact the British Standards Institution (BSI) about creating a Kitemark for drone manufacturers and operators. Introduced in 1903, the BSI Kitemark is a product and service quality certification mark for products where safety is paramount. While distinct from regulations, and voluntary rather than mandatory, standards assure compliance with industry best practice.
“We gave the BSI the idea and they said it’s fantastic; but it would cost £60,000 and you can’t sell it, you can only create it,” says Garbett.
Instead of taking his money, the BSI invited Garbett to sit on TC20SC16, the ISO committee for the development of standards on drones. He is now responsible for the group writing international standards for drone operations, which has 30 committee members.
The value of drone standards
Garbett explains how standards work alongside regulations with the example of an unmanned traffic management system.
“The introduction of that technology would enable safe monitoring and tracking of all low-level air drones, and possibly the integration of low-level unmanned airspace,” he says. “It enables you to execute what’s known as beyond visual line of sight because you know where the drone is, you know what it’s doing and it will tell you its status.
“Unless you underpin that activity with a standard, what are you building it on? The autonomous vehicle industry started developing standards that were ultimately technical without ‘safety quality’. That’s what we’re introducing for the air industry. There are two aspects to this; is the product safe to use, and is it used safely? If you overlay those, you get airworthiness.”
How standards will impact drone manufacturers
Garbett explains that standards will not tell manufacturers how to build a battery, for example, but they will dictate that if they are building a battery for a drone it has to be intelligent enough to understand the battery lifespan and factors that affect it, like cold temperatures. Or if one rotor on a four-rotor drone fails, it must fail in such as way that it does not fall out of the sky and hurt someone.
He argues that regulations could build on drone standards; for example, the government could dictate that manufacturers could only sell ISO-accredited drones in the UK or only ISO-accredited operators could bid for contracts that involve working beyond line-of-sight.