Neil Blacklock CMIOSH, SHEQ adviser at Rainham Industrial Services, explains why companies should consider whether drone use is right for them.
What do you think when you hear the word ‘drone’? Annoying ‘toys’ that invade privacy and shut down airports? Or a tool to enable safer working at height? Over the past five years their global use across a host of industries, including oil and gas, agriculture, construction and manufacturing, has gone through the roof. They are so ubiquitous you can pick up a camera-enabled drone for as little as £20 online. This raises the question: why do we not use them more to help manage safety at work and, more specifically, to complete work at height?
In the UK, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – specifically, regulation 6(2) – state ‘every employer shall ensure that work is not carried out at height where it is reasonably practicable to carry out the work safely otherwise than at height’. Other countries have a version of this rule. It is arguable that with the requirements to prevent hazards – and drones’ relatively low cost and ease of use – they would be a practical solution to working at height. But are they? Yes – and no.
We should always consider drone use in the first instance. Falls are a global problem accounting for an estimated 684,000 deaths (WHO, 2021). In the UK, according to the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 123 workers died in 2021-22, with the largest cause being falls from height, accounting for 29 fatalities (HSE, 2022). The US National Safety Council analysed data from the US Department of Labor and reported that 645 workers died and 49,250 were injured in 2020 alone (NSC, 2021). Across the EU, slipping, stumbling or falling account for 15.3% of fatal accidents – the second highest cause of fatalities (Eurostat, 2019).
If drones can help reduce injuries and fatalities, I believe we must consider using them. However, airspace regulation creates the largest barrier to integration and casts doubt on whether drone use is reasonably practical or not. Due to the technology’s rapid acceleration, regulation around the world has been playing catch-up. Western countries have tightened their regulations significantly: CAP 722 in the UK, EU Aviation Safety Agency Easy Access Rules for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Regulation (EU) 2019/947 and Regulation (EU) 2019/945) in Europe, and Federal Aviation Authority part 107 of title 14 in the US. All have been updated in the last few years to mixed approval.
The wild west days when drones could fly almost anywhere are over, mainly because of congested airspace around dense urban centres. Although all workplaces in a defined jurisdiction such as the UK will be subject to the same rules, the term ‘reasonably practical’ is the major driver in whether drone inspection is adopted as regulatory and administrative requirements have become a bigger barrier.
Barriers to use
To operate a drone in line with EU and UK regulations you need to be trained to a level relative to the complexity of the operation. Drone operations are split into three categories: open, certified and specified.
The ‘open’ category is the lowest risk: flying in a field in open airspace with no dangers and the drone in sight at all times. ‘Certified’ is for more complex operations with objects in the way – again, the drone must remain in sight. ‘Specified’ is for the highest-risk operations: a training course is required. These qualifications add a technical barrier to drone operations.
The administrative side of managing a drone system is also a hurdle, but one that should lend itself to OSH professionals. Every flight conducted for work purposes should include a risk assessment if operating in the certified or specific categories. An operations manual will also be required in the UK. Although the Civil Aviation Authority helps with pre-defined risk assessments, the paperwork can mount up and be complex. There are also requirements for insurance.
Driving drone superhighways
Coordinated standards and regulations for drone use are needed if the technology is to be used to its full benefit, world-leading experts recently told the UK government.
The autonomous or remotely piloted drone market is likely to flourish and form an integral part of the world economy (Future Market Insights, 2022).
Commercialising the use of drones could save businesses £22bn by 2030 (PwC, 2022), but the Drone Delivery Group (DDG), the UK’s top authority on the technology, made up of more than 400 industry experts, said the government must lay regulatory foundations.
Robert Garbett, chairman of the DDG, said the UK needs ‘a harmonised and coordinated approach to standards and regulations, across land, sea and air, in order to realise the benefit for generations to come’.
In January, the group delivered a white paper, A national strategy for drones across land, sea and air, to the UK government, presenting a national strategy for commercialisation, with the aim of safely accelerating growth.
John Haffenden, CEO of the DDG, said: ‘Without a solid strategy, operational chaos, reduced safety and data security will be the result in what will continue to be a predominantly manned transport environment.’
As well as delivering new jobs, PwC (2022) estimates that a best-case scenario for 2030 of 900,000 drones in the UK’s skies would take hundreds of thousands of vehicles off the roads and reduce carbon emissions by 2.4 million tonnes.
Why should we be using drones?
The reality of creating an in-house drone programme for most small- to medium-sized enterprises wouldn’t be practical. However, an external drone service provider (DSP) is an alternative. The drone services market has been growing, with PwC estimating it will be worth £45bn to the UK economy by 2030 (PwC, 2022). Many DSPs take on the administrative burden, removing that barrier. For a one-off cost, any task can be completed. For example, the oil and gas industry uses drones extensively to reduce the costs of inspecting pipelines, rather than hiring a helicopter crew.
Drones are also not subject to airspace regulation if they are operating inside an enclosed space such as a building. Warehouses, for example, have high ceilings and shelves. Drones are being used to stocktake, giving real-time feedback.
This technology is being used effectively to solve numerous problems and remove humans from hazardous situations. The sooner we adapt and adopt drones into everyday practices, the sooner we could reap the safety benefits.
Civil Aviation Authority (2022) How is UK airspace structured?: information on classifications and management. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Eurostat. (2019) Accidents at work – statistics on causes and circumstances. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Future Market Insights. (2022) Autonomous drone platform market overview. (accessed 19 January 2023)
HSE. (2022) Work-related fatal injuries in Great Britain. (accessed 15 December 2022).
JISHA. (2022) Industrial accidents in CY2021 in Japan (fixed data). (accessed 15 December 2022).
NSC. (2021) Falls – lower level. (accessed 15 December 2022).
PwC. (2022) Skies without limits v2.0. (accessed 15 December 2022).
Work at Height Regulations. (2005) (accessed 15 December 2022).
World Health Organization. (2021) Falls. (accessed 15 December 2022).