Wednesday, 6 August 2014

UK CAA releases report on regulation of suborbital flights

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom (UK) has released an extensive report on the regulation of suborbital flights, which forms part of the country's efforts to attract operations of suborbital vehicles to its territory.  The report contains a thorough analysis of the regulatory landscape and makes very interesting recommendations. Since spaceflight operations are expected to start in 2018, the report recommends that the short-term regulatory framework should be in place at least one year before.

The report focuses on 'spaceplanes', i.e. hybrid suborbital vehicles that combine both aircraft and ballistic specifications in different stages of the flight. The report takes into account EASA's intention to regulate suborbital vehicles, as long as these can be deemed 'aircraft'. However, since EASA regulation will not be in place before 2018 at the earliest, the report proposes classifying such vehicles as 'experimental aircraft' for the short term, to exempt them temporarily from EASA's regulatory competence. Until EASA's regulations are in place, domestic law would apply. As to the latter (UK law) the report proposes special agreements with the US Federal Aviation Administration Associate for Space Transportation (FAA/AST) to have FAA licenses recognised in the UK, combined with special safety conditions (to be included in the UK Air Navigation Order) to protect the uninvolved public. The reason is that currently there are no UK entities that manufacture or operate suborbital vehicles, and flights are expected to occur through wet lease agreements with US entities. To the rest, in the short term, an overall safety management system (SMS) framework should be established by the CAA and managed by the operator. Therefore, the recommendation is to align with the FAA/AST in the short term and with EASA in the long term.

As to persons flying on board such vehicles, they should be deemed spaceflight participants, not passengers, and sign an informed consent before they fly.

Regarding airspace arrangements, the CAA indicates two fundamental options for creating segregated areas of airspace for spaceplane operations: (a) The creation of a bespoke area of segregated airspace around the aerodrome selected for initial spaceplane operations, which, nevertheless, could need up to two years to complete; (b) the creation of a Temporary Danger Area for the purpose, which would be much faster to achieve but is designed to be used only in extreme situations, such as those relating to national security. Furthermore, airspace segregation should be as short as possible to minimise disruption. Nonetheless, the exact temporal and spatial requirements of spaceflight operations are expected to depend on weather and on the specifications of the vehicles used. Therefore, segregation will be conducted on a case-by-case basis.

The report proceeds to an analysis of spaceport requirements. These should be located at coastal areas, to minimise potential casualties on the ground, and fulfil meteorological criteria, such as hours of sunshine, wind speed and rainfall. The report recommends to use existing ground infrastructure and Air Traffic Control facilities, which means that the location should be still active but as low level of aircraft traffic. As a result, eight locations are proposed as potential future spaceports, i.e. Campbeltown Airport, Glasgow Prestwick Airport, Newquay Cornwall, RAF Leuchars, RAF Lossiemouth, Stornoway Airport, Llanbedr Airport and Kinloss Barracks. In addition, there is need for a separate launch site for vertical launch operations, which owing to restricted operations criteria, should be located at the north coast of Scotland. In any case, local authorities should establish contingency plans before commencement of spaceport operations, while a full environmental impact assessment of each spaceport should be conducted.

There are also recommendations on crew licensing requirements. In the short term, the report recommends validating the licenses issued by the FAA/AST, whereas in the long term the CAA should cooperate with the FAA and EASA to develop special standards and levels of competence for crew, instructors and examiners.

Concerning flight crew and passenger medical requirements, these should be developed at least one year before the start of commercial operations in the UK by international experts experienced in both aviation and space medicine. They should include training in the effects of gravity acceleration and deceleration forces. The report also recommends that a modern long-arm centrifuge is available and accessible in the UK in the long term.

In sum, the report recommends short-term regulatory alignment with the US and long-term development of a comprehensive regulatory framework in cooperation with the FAA and EASA.

You can find the full text of the report (321 pages) here, a “brief” summary of 77 pages here.

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