Remote aircraft and the future of the aviation industry

4 mins
July 4, 2022
Kevin Woolsey, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Policy Manager at the CAA sat down with us to explain his career journey so far. Read on to hear about this new and exciting sector within the aviation industry!

Why did you join the CAA?

For me, joining the CAA was a natural progression. Previously, I’d spent a lot of my career with the Royal Navy, within the Fleet Air arm. Towards the latter end of my career with the Navy, I was with the Military Aviation Authority, so joining the CAA and using my transferable skills and knowledge was the right and most logical step.

Would you be able to explain in more detail your area of expertise?

My area of expertise is Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). This is quite a new and exciting sector within the aviation industry and is growing significantly. RPAS encapsulates systems such as drones, and other aircraft that aren’t flown with a pilot physically in the aircraft - as the technology grows, so do the possibilities for how these systems can be used, and so it’s important that we are able to provide guidance on best practices so that we can have a future with these systems that are safe and allow the industry to use them to their full potential. 

My role is Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Policy Manager, and I work as part of the General Aviation and RPAS Unit. My job is to advise the head of the department on all matters to do with policy and regulation, in addition to advising the government on future strategies, making recommendations, and providing insight to help them choose the right regulatory path for the UK when it comes to these systems. I lead and manage a team of 6 policy specialists.

What would a typical day look like in your position or department at the CAA?

Typically, I will be involved in low-and-high level meetings, typically with either government or other arms of the Safety and Airspace Regulation Group within the CAA. These meetings can vary enormously in their content - they can look at the use of RPAS for commercial operations, the use of RPAS swarms that you might see on the TV at big events such as New Year’s Eve and provide advice to the part of the unit who authorise these operations. 

In addition, I provide line management to a team of 6 policy specialists, helping to direct and coordinate their efforts to achieve the objectives of our unit, and answer any questions that can come in, either from the government or the head of the wider department. 

On top of this, we’re in charge of writing policy guidance for RPAS, which is crucial for other people who are part of the industry to be aware of, especially if they’re considering being more involved in this area of aviation. Aviation regulations can be difficult to read, so a large part of our job is to produce clear and accessible guidance so that the people in the RPAS industry find it easier to understand how they can stay within the requirements of the regulations. This is especially important in the RPAS sector of aviation, as not everyone who reads our guidance has a background in aviation. 

What benefits do a background in STEM have?

Of the policy specialists in my team, half are RPAS operators, with the other half being engineers with aviation experience.  We all have technical backgrounds. For the CAA in many different roles, having a STEM background is important as there’s a real need for scientific and engineering awareness. 

RPAS have a very specific and necessary focus on the more technical aspects of aviation. This is because RPAS need to incorporate complex systems to allow remote pilots to control their aircraft from a distance. Because the pilot is no longer in the aircraft itself anymore, technical systems are needed to replace even the simple tasks of looking out of a cockpit window and operating the flying controls. These solutions are technically delivered and involve command links, active and passive sensors to detect and avoid collisions and cyber resilience to name just a few.

Because RPAS are so technically complex, the need for people with STEM backgrounds is vital to the growth of this sector of aviation in the future.

Do you see any areas becoming more of a focused priority for the CAA in the future?

Obviously, a big concern for the entire aviation sector is sustainability, and we’re doing everything we can to ensure that we arrive at Net Zero and achieve global environmental goals. Helpfully, a lot of RPAS use electric propulsion already, but a key focus is the decarbonisation of the aviation industry. 

Additionally, the full integration of RPAS into the aviation sector is going to be a huge priority going forward. There are all sorts of repercussions which affect our team and the industry, but the integration of RPAS is a huge part of the future of aviation. 

As I said, one of the most interesting aspects of the RPAS sector is the high level of complexity of the systems they need to operate safely and operators within the RPAS industry are often not traditional pilots. As a regulator, we are well accustomed to pilots who put computers on their wings but with RPAS, we now deal with non-pilots putting wings on their computers!

The pandemic has affected the whole world - what has it been like working in the aviation and aerospace industry?

Somewhat surprisingly, RPAS was largely unaffected by the pandemic, which was quite unusual for the aviation industry at the time. It’s only continued to grow - there’s a lot of operators in the UK. There’s about 250,000 operators at the moment, so the RPAS sector is big already and it continues to grow. 

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