Opinion: Civil Aviation Authority needs to stop spreading misinformation related to drones

Friday 12 August 2022

By Dr Isaac Henderson

Dr Isaac Henderson.

Last updated: Friday 25 November 2022

When we think of the spread of misinformation, we tend to think about conspiracy theories that make their way around social media. Our Prime Minister recently highlighted her view that online misinformation is a threat that negatively affects New Zealand. Despite her strong views on the topic, it appears that the message hasn’t filtered down into every government agency.

The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAANZ) has been promulgating misinformation regarding the rules for unmanned aircraft (commonly called drones) for some time now; on their website, in Facebook advertisements, and in the print materials that they ask retailers to distribute when they sell a drone. Objections raised by users, training providers, and industry bodies have fallen on deaf ears and been dismissed by the CAANZ’s staff as non-issues.

As someone who is a lecturer and researcher in the field of unmanned aerospace, and as a consultant and Chair of an industry body, I believe it is time for this poor behaviour to be called out for the sake of aviation safety.

Part of the reason the CAANZ gets away with spreading misinformation is because the public sees regulators like the CAANZ as being knowledgeable and reputable organisations that are staffed by experts in their field. Therefore, when information is presented from a regulator, it is unlikely to be questioned as to whether it is true and accurate. For the CAANZ in particular, there is also the complicating factor that most members of the public do not have to interface with the authority and likely have limited understanding of the Civil Aviation Rules (CARs) and how these regulate aviation safety.

To understand how misinformation is being spread by the CAANZ and the consequences that this could have for aviation safety, it is first necessary to explain some of the rules applicable to unmanned aircraft and how these are being presented. New Zealand has two sets of CARs that regulate unmanned aircraft operations (alongside more general CARs that regulate all aviation participants). CAR Part 101 is essentially a set of general operating rules that allow anyone to buy a drone and fly it so long as they can comply with the CAR Part 101 requirements. These requirements include minimum distances from airports, altitude limits, consent requirements for flight over people and property, and so on. If an organisation needs to go beyond those requirements and conduct a more complex operation, then they can apply for certification under Part 102 of the CARs, which allows organisations to make risk-based arguments for how they can conduct such operations in a safe manner.

CAR Part 101 does have a lot of nuances within it, which is why training organisations spend two to three days explaining its provisions to students. For example, at face value you cannot fly within four kilometres of an aerodrome under CAR Part 101. However, that only applies to promulgated aerodromes (those in the Aeronautical Information Publication), excluding most top-dressing strips, private helipads, and so on. Even with that caveat, you can fly within four kilometres of a promulgated aerodrome if you hold a recognised pilot qualification, have a spotter, and obtain agreement from the aerodrome operator (or clearance from Air Traffic Control if it is a controlled aerodrome). If you don’t have a recognised pilot qualification, then you can still fly within four kilometres of an aerodrome, so long as you are shielded (flying below the highest object within 100m of the operation), where there is also a barrier between the drone and the airport (e.g., a tall hedge in the direction of the airport that would catch the drone in its foliage in the event of a fly-away). Variations to the above can also be approved under CAR Part 102 to facilitate alternative ways of achieving the same level of safety. While it is appreciated that this level of detail may take a little while to understand, it is a factually correct representation of the rules, highlighting what you can and cannot do within four kilometres of an aerodrome under CAR Part 101, and showing that there are legitimate ways that you can gain extra privileges if you need to conduct such operations.

The above paragraph highlights the complexity that exists within the CARs, and no one would disagree that this level of complexity makes safety promotion from the CAANZ to the general public around drone use a difficult task. In 2019, they produced some useful videos to explain some of the difficult aspects of the rules, especially their Shielded operations video that explains how you can fly within four kilometres of airports and in controlled airspace by using shielded areas. The video also clearly explains the logic behind the provisions and why the rules are not more permissive. This sort of safety promotion is effective because it provides practical information that is easily digestible and builds understanding of the rules and the logic behind the rules (providing legitimacy – a concept we will touch on a little later).

Let’s contrast the example above with the CAANZ’s safety promotion efforts today. That area within four kilometres of an aerodrome is now what they call a drone no fly zone. This is a term that has been applied in brochures, on their website, and in Facebook advertising to describe those nuanced areas where you can only fly when you meet certain requirements, like within four kilometres of an aerodrome. Facebook users were confronted with ads with the no fly zone terminology in large font, without any further explanation (unless they click on a link to read more). There were also other confusing ads within their campaign, like one that read Stay four kilometres away from anywhere aircraft are landing or taking off. Similar terminology is used on their website and in safety promotion brochures, like the Share The Skies brochure that retailers of drones are asked to give when a purchase is made.

Readers can probably tell how the stay four kilometres away from anywhere aircraft are landing or taking off is not strictly speaking correct. Before concluding this, you would need to confirm that it is a promulgated aerodrome for which the rules apply. And even then, there are several easy ways of flying within that area by doing a shielded operation, or by obtaining the necessary qualification, using a spotter, and getting agreement from the aerodrome operator (or air traffic controller if the aerodrome is controlled). As for the no fly zone term – well that’s deliberately misleading. In fact, there is no such thing as a no fly zone in any of the CARs. Anyone who doubts that can navigate to the Rules section of the CAANZ’s website and open any of the CAR Parts and use the find function on the PDF for “no fly zone”. You won’t find anything. So why is the CAANZ using a term that does not exist in the rules? Responding to industry concerns, MP Simeon Brown asked the Minister of Transport two Written Parliamentary Questions on the matter, which are copied below with the Minister’s responses.

Simeon Brown: Has the Civil Aviation Authority been undertaking social media advertising which refers to “no fly zones” in relation to drone use, and if so, what is meant by “no fly zones”, if anything?

Hon Michael Wood: The Civil Aviation Authority is running a three-month drone safety rules awareness campaign, ending 31 May, featuring the rules to new and recreational drone operators. Part of this campaign includes a “No-fly zone – Check your airspace” Facebook ad which has been running since early May. The “no-fly zone” phrase is commonly used, acceptable language for the target audience. It’s immediately understandable and successfully conveys its meaning as restricted airspaces that drone operators cannot fly in. Drone operators can investigate further and learn that if they met certain requirements, they may be able to fly.

Simeon Brown MP: How does the Civil Aviation Authority interpret "no fly zones" in relation to drone use, if at all, and what, if any, is the regulatory basis for this interpretation, if any?

Hon Michael Wood: The term “no fly zones” is used in public-facing communications material targeted at amateur drone operators to describe airspace where drone flight is not permitted, or is restricted to the extent that it is effectively closed to such operators.

The minister also provided links to CAR Part 101 and to its corresponding advisory circular, a document outlining acceptable means of compliance to justify his answer to the second question.

These answers represent ill-informed reasoning to use terms that do not exist in the CARs. It is also worth highlighting that none of the areas that are referred to as no fly zones are actually that. Indeed, one can operate in any of these areas in full compliance with CAR Part 101 provided that they have met certain requirements, or may operate in those spaces under CAR Part 102 if they have been approved to do so.

Some may look at this and think that it is a minor technicality and nothing to be concerned about. So why should we be concerned about this spread of misinformation for the sake of aviation safety?

Firstly, when an organisation puts out information that is incorrect (even if well-meaning), it makes one question the accuracy of other information that they put out. Given that the CAANZ is the source of a myriad of publications (including rules, requirements, best practice advice, etc.) that provide important safety information, it would be a shame for operators to question the accuracy of it, given a small portion of their publications contain misleading information. Simply put, one cannot help but question the reliability of information that government regulators put out when that information is contrary to the rules that they are administering.

Secondly, there is a significant body of literature around compliance with transport regulations that emphasises legitimacy of the rules as being critical alongside instrumentalist approaches (e.g., potential for fines or punishment). Contrast this with the no fly zone communication that new users may have been exposed to. If we ignore the fact that no such thing actually exists, users may still believe that they are within a drone no fly zone because of the misleading CAANZ materials. In the absence of any explanation as to what makes areas like within 4km of aerodromes dangerous, they may not understand the risks involved, especially if it is not a major airport. And having been told that they cannot fly in those zones, they believe that they cannot operate there at all. Their potential for being caught flying near a small aerodrome is low. Weighing up the alternatives, you can see how that user may now fly in a dangerous manner within that zone because they do not understand that there are legitimate ways of flying there and because they are unlikely to be caught. They do not believe that the drone no fly zones have legitimacy (because they have been misled as to what the requirements are), and they do not believe they are likely to be caught. What the CAANZ should have done is emphasise the ways that one can operate in that area safely and in compliance with the rules, clearly explaining the risks involved and how to manage them. This opportunity was lost through the clickbait logic of over-simplifying the rules.

Finally, there is the matter of undermining those who already conduct legitimate and fully compliant operations within these so-called drone no fly zones. Those individuals and organisations who have spent the money on training and applying for certification now have members of the general public who saw the ads thinking that their operations are illegal. In my role as Chair of UAVNZ, I am aware of member organisations that have had the Police called on them when exercising the privileges of their pilot qualification or CAR Part 102 Operator’s Certificate. This causes significant disruption to their operations. In one case, an organisation could not obtain agreement from the aerodrome operator to fly within four kilometres of the aerodrome because that aerodrome operator believed that aerodromes are now drone no fly zones. The consequences of misinformation are falling squarely on the responsible and professional operators who need to use the airspace that the CAANZ is now erroneously calling drone no fly zones.

Knowing the impact of this misinformation on professional unmanned aircraft operators, and being familiar with the body of academic literature that emphasises the importance of legitimacy in rulemaking and the application of the rules, I am calling on the CAANZ to stop using misinformation in safety promotion campaigns. Over-simplifying rules to the point of being incorrect does not instil confidence in the regulator’s expertise, undermines the legitimacy of the rules, and causes disruption to legitimate operations. The CAANZ should go back to its 2019 initiatives of making videos and explanations of the actual CARs, showing the legitimate pathways to conduct operations, and clearly identifying the risks that are being managed in the process.

Dr Isaac Henderson is a lecturer in Massey University’s School of Aviation, a published researcher on matters of transport policy, consults for a number of commercial unmanned aircraft operators in New Zealand and abroad, and chairs UAVNZ, an industry and professional body for unmanned aerospace. The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

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