New Zealand considers regulatory framework for drones to operate beyond-line-of-sight

By Fiona Rotherham

Beyond-line-of-sight drone operations would make it easier and more efficient to check power lines. Photo / Greg Bowker
Beyond-line-of-sight drone operations would make it easier and more efficient to check power lines. Photo / Greg Bowker

Allowing drones to operate beyond the operator's line of sight could provide economic gains of up to $190 million a year to New Zealand's farming, forestry and energy sectors, according to a report commissioned by Callaghan Innovation.

New Zealand may become the first country to have a regulatory framework that lets beyond-line-of-sight flights on unmanned aerial vehicles, with the Civil Aviation Authority seeking sign-off for a new rule from the Transport Minister later this month.

The report by Andrew Shelley Economic Consulting and Aviation Safety Management Systems estimates beyond-line-of-sight operations would provide between $152 million and $190 million in annual revenue increases and cost savings.

Benefits could come from improving the frequency and efficiency of farm pasture measurement, early disease detection in forestry, and reduced electricity sector outage times and maintenance.

There is little formal regulation for drones, with smaller ones falling under model aircraft rules and large ones requiring special authorisation. The CAA's new rules would allow commercial drone operators to apply on a case-by-case basis for the safe operation of beyond-line-of-sight flights rather than the blanket ban that applies in other countries.

CAA has already given the University of Canterbury permission for two test zones for long-distance use of drones. The Airways Corporation has also set up Airshare, to look at ways of integrating commercial drones with other aircraft. It has had 160 controlled airspace flight requests from drone operators in the past three weeks alone.

Callaghan Innovation's aviation sector manager Chris Thomson said the report shows beyond-line-of-sight makes unmanned aerial flights a lot more economic.

"It's not economic to place a person every kilometre to monitor transmission lines down the length of the country or over every 4ha of farmland," Thomson said.

He anticipated initial take-up in New Zealand would be from the infrastructure sector.

"The oil and gas sector has huge costs around manned helicopter operations and health and safety risks with those operations, so finding something that is lower risk and lower cost is a huge driver," he said. Use of beyond-line-of-sight-operated drones would enable farm consultants to obtain imagery for a number of farms at once and provide each farmer with the information for pasture management.

Out of sight

• $152m-$190m benefit from flying drones beyond the operator's line of sight.
• Civil Aviation Authority aiming to get sign-off for a new rule this month.
• Infrastructure sector is tipped as an early adopter of the technology.

BusinessDesk is funded by Callaghan Innovation to write about the commercialisation of innovation.

- BusinessDesk

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