Low Flying RAF Military Aircraft and drones
Whether you are flying your drone for fun or profit, the need to fly safely and legally is often discussed. Height limits and airspace restrictions are set out in the Drone Code for all to follow and doing so will help to avoid conflict with manned aircraft and the risks that this poses.
Generally speaking, civilian manned aircraft will operate over the 400 foot ceiling applied to UAV flights and so you would think that observance of these limits would be sufficient to keep the airspace safe for all.
However, when carrying out essential training for operations, military aircraft have a need to fly beneath this 400ft limit, and sometimes as low as the ground in the case of helicopters taking off and landing. Collision with drones at these low heights could have disastrous consequences. These low flight exercises can take place any time of day or night, in any weather and in any location so it is something that all pilots need to be aware of, not just if you’re near an airfield or in a known low fly zone.
DSR were invited to the RAF Safety Centre in High Wycombe to meet with Sqn Ldr Sam Hodgkinson – the man in charge of liaising with the drone world to minimise the risks associated with this shared airspace. The RAF goal is to find ways in which we can work together to keep everyone safe.
Ask – Look – Listen
The strategy for making this a reality is really quite simple and applies to both commercial and hobbyist drone pilots equally. Aside from always flying according to the drone code and obtaining the relevant NATS permissions where required, all pilots should consider the following…
For every flight that you prepare for, pilots can call the freephone number (between 7am to 11pm on Mon-Thursday and 7am – 5pm on Fridays) below or send an email to the following address.
0800 515 544
As far in advance as possible, you can give them the date and time of your flight, the maximum height you will be flying to and the location. They don’t need to know about your craft or why you are flying and you can give them location in any way that is easy for you – so by postcode, latitude / longitude, proximity to local landmark etc (The number is manned from 7am to 11pm on Mon-Thursday and 7am – 5pm on Fridays)
Your flight details will be added to their database and they will inform you of any low flying activity that is likely to affect you.
It might seem like overkill if you’re just planning a quick fun flight as part of your hobby but it’s really important that they be kept informed. The people at the other end of the phone number or email address are set up to deal with this issue specifically.
When you’re on your flight (after you’ve logged it obviously!), keep an eye on the sky for low flying aircraft. In a wide-open space, it can be tempting to simply focus on your screen activity, but it is important to monitor your aerial surroundings.
Military aircraft will often be heard before they are seen (especially in the case of helicopters) so keep an ear out for engine noise as warning that one may be close by.
What do you do if a Low Flying Aircraft is in your Area?
Military aircraft often fly at high speed and the pilot’s field of vision can be limited so it is more likely that you will see them before the pilot can see either you or your drone. The first thing to do if you suspect a low flying aircraft is close is to immediately descend your craft and then land it safely as soon as possible. Stay on the ground until the danger is clear.
What else can you do to Help?
By following all the steps above, you’re not only protecting your drone investment but also you are helping to safeguard the lives of the pilots and crew that are flying, not to mention those on the ground who could be affected should a collision occur. There are two other really simple things that you can do to help them even further.
Wear a high visibility jacket or vest. Even if you are miles from civilisation in open space, high vis clothing will help alert a pilot to your presence. Spotting a brightly coloured person in a field will mean that the pilot can keep an eye out for a drone in the sky. It’s the same advice given to horse riders – the easier you are to spot, the more the pilot can alter their route to keep everyone safe.
Use Drone Assist. NATS offer a free drone safety app called Drone Assist (or there is a desktop version at dronesafetymap.com) . It provides airspace information that you can use when planning your flights – for example flight restriction zones around airfields, as well as ground hazards where there may be safety, security or privacy concerns. As well as providing you with this information to assist you with your planning, you can (and should) add in your flight detail. It’s a simple case of tapping on your takeoff location and following the prompts to enter some basic information such as date and flight duration (it’s helpful to add your max altitude in the comments as well). Your flight is then publicly listed and anyone looking at that area will be able to see it and plan accordingly. It doesn’t replace the need for calling or emailing the RAF team but it’s great practice to get into for hobbyists and commercial pilots alike.
Reporting drone flights will, over time, lead to a clearer map and understanding of UAV pilots’ requirements – in itself a valuable tool for the military in planning their essential low flight training exercises.
By working together in this way to report and record flights and receive information of potential conflicts ahead of time, drone pilots will be working alongside the military to keep the airspace safer for everyone.