Q&A: The CAA’s Jonathan Nicholson reflects on a year of change

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The regulatory climate has dramatically changed post-Gatwick, and due to the huge coverage given to the incident and drones in general, the regulator in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), became the first port of call for many in the industry.

Commercial Drone Professional got in touch Jonathan Nicholson, the CAA’s assistant director for corporate communications, to gain a deeper insight into how the body shapes the sector on a daily basis and just what it has to deal with.

CDP: How is the CAA managing to deal with the fast-progressing drone industry?

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JN: As an organisation the CAA is absolutely committed to making sure the UK is at the forefront of the drone industry and innovation generally. We now have a dedicated drone unit that includes our policy and oversight in one place, helping us to provide a joined-up response. We have also secured funding to set up a CAA-wide innovation team to assist those in the industry.

CDP: What challenges is the CAA currently facing?

JN: Aviation has always been at the forefront of technology and therefore as a regulator we are used to constantly developing our ways of working and oversight of the sector. The more unique challenges that the drone industry pose are quite often related to the relative infancy of the sector. We see a lot of organisations and individuals that haven’t previously engaged with aviation so it can involve more work from all parties to get projects up and running.

CDP: We see a lot of reports of ‘near-miss’ incidents, and Virgin Atlantic called for stricter regulation in regards to this. How will the CAA respond?

JN: We absolutely come to drones with the aim of making the sector a success and ensuring that the UK realises and achieves all of the benefits that drones can offer the wider industry.  To do that we need everyone flying a drone to do so safely and responsibly. The Government, rather than us, decides if there will be new regulations and consulted on a future drone bill in 2018.

CDP: I see you have recently been looking to expand your UAS team. Is this due to more demand within the department from a more crowded airspace?

JN: As part of setting up the new dedicated drone unit we’re making sure we have the key skills and knowledge to oversee the growing sector and provide the best service to those we regulate. Although integrating new users into the airspace is part of our overall work, the unit is more directly focused on development of policy, regulation, approvals and oversight of commercial operators. The airspace integration issue is a much wider one, involving other aviation sectors. 

CDP: What do you feel is the most common misconception when it comes to regulation?

JN: That everything else that flies is talking to air traffic control and electronically identifying itself. This is especially true when talking to people about BVLOS. A lot of people do not realise that there are many types of airspace users sharing the airspace from parachutists to light aircraft and in many cases they do not need to talk to air traffic control or pre-notify.

CDP: What kind of resources have now become necessary to manage the UK’s busy airspace, specifically in relation to drones?

JN: At the moment drones don’t really change the way the UK’s airspace is organised or run as they operate in existing uncontrolled airspace. Our work in the near future will be more around enabling future changes – so more from a policy and regulatory area.

CDP: The likes of Amazon and Uber have been looking to expand their drone programmes; what implications does this have for the CAA?

JN: There’s obviously work to do around setting up trials and special permissions but these are important to help the overall industry develop, so we do try to accommodate requests where we can. 

CDP: Is there anyone in the industry that you see as particularly proactive in working with the CAA?

JN: As we primarily engage with the industry as a safety regulator people either meet our requirements and get an approval or they don’t. There’s no real half measures and we treat everyone the same.

CDP: What advice does the CAA give to drone pilots in the UK?

JN: Apart from the obvious ones around following the rules, using an airspace app is probably the best advice we’ve seen given to prospective commercial users is to know exactly what you want your drone business to be.

CDP: Finally, how do you think the events at Gatwick have affected the industry moving forward?

JN: I guess immediately it’s too soon to say. But the Gatwick incident was a result of illegal use of a drone. So it’s really about detection, prevention and enforcement. The CAA supports those involved in this work but primarily this is led by the airports and the Government’s enforcement agencies.

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Alex Douglas

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