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Regulation for safety or control?

1 February 2019

I've just returned from my regular trip to the PO Box with a bag of goodies.

Looking at what the bag contains, it has become incredibly apparent just how tech has changed in the past 20 years. Cheaper, better, lighter, smaller -- and the pace of change seems to be quickening.

Inside this bag are a couple of modules that pick up not just GPS but also GLONASS satellites to give uber-accurate positioning data that is refreshed 10 times a second.

Just 20 years ago, this would have been as good (or better than) the military receivers of the day.

But in 2019, you can pick up these thumbnail sized devices for NZ$12 a pop from your favourite Sino e-tailer.

Consider my 66 year-old gob totally smacked!

But wait, there's more...

Also in the bag is a flight controller board.

This thing has gyros, accelerometers, a barometer, a 32-bit processor and a raft of other electronic goodness -- in a tiny board less than 30mm square and barely heavy enough to register on my digital scales.

Loaded up with the right software (open-source of course), this board becomes a full-autonomous auto-pilot, capable of guiding a craft (big or small) with pin-point accuracy over very long distances. Sounds scary huh?

And of course there's also a tiny radio-control receiver which operates, not on the congested and range-limited 2.4GHz band... but on the 900MHz band, where the propagation characteristics of the signal allow for greater distances and more reliable operation at low altitudes. And when I say tiny... I mean *tiny*. This thing is actually *smaller* than my thumbnail.

So what is all this technology for?

Am I building another low-cost cruise missile?

No, although the task would be so much easier today than it was some 17 years ago when I first mooted the possibility of such a device.

Actually, all this micro-tech is going into a model aircraft -- but not just any model aircraft. It's going into a model which I am designing to effectively dodge many of the new restrictions being placed on drones and RC flying models.

Regulators around the world have decided that things weighing under 250g are probably little more than "toys" and as such, pose little or no threat to person or property. Because of this low risk-profile, they've generally exempted them from the requirement to be registered and, in the case of Canada, they've even exempted them from most of the rules that apply to heavier craft. The sensible Canadians have simply said "if it's under 250g then do what you like so long as you don't endanger people, wildlife or property".

Now that's a super-sensible attitude. Without an attitude like that, we end up foisting a huge bunch of ridiculous regulations on 8-year-old kids who've bought or been given a small flying toy, and that's not right.

However, thanks to all this super-light hi-techery, it's possible to also have a lot of fun with sub-250g RC models and I've already proven that with a couple of craft.

This one is just 80g yet offers fast, nimble performance and the ability to be flown using first-person-view video goggles.

The second one is a larger and heavier craft that also operates via first-person-view but has a flight time that easily exceeds 20 minutes and can cover more than 13Km on a single battery charge.

It will be *very* interesting to see how regulators react to this kind of capability at such low weights. Indeed, it will be a test of their honesty.

If, as is claimed, craft weighing less than 250g do not pose an appreciable risk to safety then we should see no change to this cut-off point for registration and/or regulation. However, if politicians and regulators are more concerned about people having the power to look down from above on whatever they want, then expect to see regulatory changes enacted pretty smartly.

Are politicians protecting our safety -- or are they really more concerned with making sure that some aspects of their decisions and actions remain unseen (from the air)?

I predict interesting times ahead.

It's worth noting that the UK came out with an Air Navigation Order a little while ago that prohibits the flying of drones and RC models within 5Km of an airport and in that order they excluded craft weighing less than 250g (don't penalise the kids). A week or so later however, they issued an annex to that order which specifically added that sub-250g craft would now be also be subject to this exclusion zone. Hence, millions of UK kids are now breaking the law if they fly a toy in their own back yard.

Safety? I don't think so.

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