When we last blogged about drones in 2015, we set out the law and guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority. Now as we enter the ninth month of 2016, we look back, and forward, at further developments in this ever-increasing marketplace. July saw Facebook reveal its Aquila drone, a solar-powered aircraft with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, intended to fly non-stop for up to 3 months at a time in order to provide internet access to the remote parts of the world.
In the same month Amazon agreed with the UK government to begin testing for its drone delivery service and the UK saw the first conviction of a man for conspiring to use a drone to smuggle tobacco and psychoactive substances into prison. August saw the police intercept a drone carrying large quantities of drugs and mobile phones flying over HMP Pentonville.
Whilst the benefits of drones are being pioneered by many, companies and individuals need to remain alive to the regulation surrounding drone flights or face potentially serious penalties: be it through the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) drone regulations, geofencing, and/or registration.
Geofencing is a virtual software programme that operates through GPS signals in preventing drones from flying into restricted airspaces. It also provides operators with real-time information on no-fly zones. Emerging as the favourite contender for regulating unmanned aircraft, the government is considering making it a mandatory feature in all drones.
Presently however, such programming is voluntary and there is no criminal penalty for flying over a geofenced area. Appetite has been slow to embrace it as well. Last year a voluntary geofencing website was created, promising individuals the opportunity to set a geofence around their home. The website eventually closed down after drone manufacturers failed to sign up. In January ‘DJI’, the largest manufacturer of drones, announced an ‘opt-out’ option to its geofence programme, effectively allowing users to bypass the security control and fly over certain restricted areas.
And so, unless airspace is restricted under the Air Navigation Order 2009, there is at present no specific criminal penalty for flying over a geofenced area. Whilst this may form part of a regulated structure in due course, there remains at present only ancillary civil and criminal consequences: breach of privacy, trespass, nuisance, voyeurism and harassment are all areas of concern, especially if your drone has a camera attached.
In March 2015 the House of Lords EU Committee published its report ‘Civilian Use of Drones in the EU’
This followed significant amounts of evidence submitted by various interested parties. In their Report the Committee recommended a compulsory drone registration scheme for all drone owners, a regime already operating in the United States and Ireland.
Such registration would assist authorities in locating potential defendants and may also, conversely, force individuals to concentrate on the legal limits of their drones. This awareness may well avoid near misses, such as that between a plane and a drone last month in Cornwall, but facilitate prosecutors in locating offenders (something they have yet failed to do in the Cornwall matter).
Whether increased criminal sanctions or regulatory enforcement will prove to be effective monitoring tools remains under consideration. Whilst we await formal codification, drone operators and users have to appreciate this evolving and more comprehensive regulatory framework surrounding this exciting and expanding new industry.