Articles | Regulating the use of drones

Joshua Kanakam reviews the government’s consultation on drone use.

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It used to be that drones (remotely controlled unmanned flying aircrafts, often carrying cameras) were only associated with the military. Now their use is becoming increasingly widespread among both consumers and commercial organisations.

They are already being used to deliver aid packages, conduct safety inspections and monitor crops and animals, and Amazon recently made its first delivery by drone in the UK. With the seemingly endless number of uses for drones, it is no surprise that some have predicted that the global drone industry will be worth over $100 billion in the next decade.

However, their increased use has also led to them making the headlines for the wrong reasons, for example the recently publicised “near misses” with passenger airlines. As a result of growing concerns over the public’s safety the Department of Transport has launched a new consultation to look into the way drones are used.

The law in the UK today

The law is made up of a mixture of general and aviation specific law, with the Air Navigation Order being the main piece of legislation governing aircraft, including drones, in the UK. It is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that helps regulate the use of drones through a dedicated drone regulation team. For guidance, it has released the user friendly “drone code” which informs those piloting drones to:

  • Keep drones with cameras 50 metres from people and properties. 
  • Keep drones with cameras 150 metres from crowds and built up areas such as concerts or sporting events.
  • Keep drones below 120 metres to reduce the likelihood of a conflict with a manned aircraft.
  • Keep drones within sight at all times.

Currently drones are required to be registered with the CAA if used for commercial purposes. The current law is enforced via fines of up to £2,500 or if aircraft are endangered an unlimited fine or up to 5 years’ imprisonment.

The Consultation on the safe use of drones

The consultation on the civil use of drones was issued on 21 December 2016 and closes on 15 March 2017. So far some of the measures proposed by ministers have centred on insuring and registering drones and providing guidance for users:

Drone insurance
There are already established insurance requirements at EU level for all drones other than those used for leisure weighing less than 20kg. The consultation will explore whether the insurance industry adequately caters for drones. Other insurance related proposals may include, as recommended in a House of Lords report, an increase to the minimum amount of public liability cover required by commercial drone operators.

Mandatory guidance
To increase public safety and make users of drones more accountable the following proposals have been suggested:

  • New signs for no fly zones at high risk areas such as prisons and airports.
  • Electronic identification of drones so its owners can held liable for breaking the law.
  • Stricter penalties for illegal flying near no fly zones. 
  • Guidance to use drones linked to the age of users.
  • The introduction of a test for non-commercial users.
  • A new criminal offence for the misuse of drones. 
  • An increase in the current maximum fine.

Drone registration
An introduction of a mandatory registration scheme for drones over 250 grams has also been proposed.

The future of regulation drone use

In 2017 the government will face the challenge of protecting the public whilst not slowing down the drone industry’s exponential growth, which some see as a way of boosting the economy. Lessons will hopefully be learnt from the Swedish government’s recent “U turn” on requiring drone operators to have permits if their aircraft are fitted with cameras. This was a prime example of how sensitive an area the regulation of drones can be.

As this relatively new industry continues to grow, operators of drones, whether individual or commercial, should pay particular attention in 2017 to any upcoming implementation of policy or legislation following the end of the consultation period.