Christmas came, and with it another few thousand new drone owners. For the most part, these were not commercial operators with liability insurance, regulated and monitored by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

These were not users who must have qualified drone pilots, and CAA permissions, and who operate machines with certified airworthiness. These were the leisure users; everyone from an eight year-old given a £100 present from Dad, to a 38-year-old executive seeking a challenging new hobby and a machine, which may have cost several thousand pounds. 

Amongst the multiple concerns about the unregulated operation of these new high-tech airspace users, we look at the available industry guidance and ask what more is needed in the UK to limit the risks associated with drones. 

Guidance 

Many countries are still developing appropriate regulation of drones in their airspace. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has struggled to deploy regulation – juggling the demands of manufacturers, with safety and privacy considerations. Any viable regulation emanating from the EU is likely to take another two years. It is, therefore, some comfort that in the UK we do have proper and well-established regulation and guidance to draw upon: 

  • Aimed particularly at drones in the 1kg to 20kg weight bracket, in July 2015 the CAA published a ‘Dronecode’ as guidance to enable drone users “to stay on the right side of the law”.
  • The CAA will shortly be launching a dedicated online resource, which users can access for guidance.
  • In response to the significant rise in the use of drones in the last few years, the Department for Transport and Ministry of Defence, on behalf of the Government and industry, have launched a ‘drones public dialogue’. This is tasked with understanding and representing the public’s view of drones, and their expectations, hopes and fears about the use of drones in the future. The outcome of public workshops will feed into a much larger public consultation on drones during the current year.

The cardinal rules for drone operation outside the commercial sphere, which figure prominently in all the published guidance, require the following:

  • Flying the drone no higher than 400 feet, and always within the sight of the operator, i.e. approximately 500 metres.
  • If the drone is fitted with a camera, it should not be flown closer than 150 metres to a congested area or a large group of people.
  • The drone should stay at least 50 metres from a person, vessel, vehicle or structure.

Questions 

It all sounds fine, doesn’t it? One has to ask though:

  • How many of us, let alone a 10-year-old, can estimate these distances with any accuracy? Certainly there are technical software fixes which can ring-fence the flying area of a drone, but such limitations are not part of a standard fit for a drone for leisure purposes.
  • Are manufacturers and retailers providing these important regulations and guidelines to buyers at the point of sale?
  • To whom have drones been sold and what records are there of a buyer’s identity?

Comment

It is fine to have regulation aimed at the drone user, together with an enforcement policy and a team to back it up. It is fine to tell people they may be jailed for a breach of the law. It is also fine to give insurers rights of subrogation against the people who cause injury and loss, incurring outlays for insurers. However, is not the real problem one of identification followed by enforcement? How will an offender be identified unless he returns to the accident scene to retrieve the broken bits of his precious drone? As such, because of these two shortcomings, insurers are likely to be derived of any realistic prospects of subrogation. 

The CAA rightly identifies in its guidance that drones carrying explosives are carrying forbidden items, and are “breaking the rules”. However, having regard to today’s terrorism threats, one must ask: is the combination of a legally purchased drone in the hands of an extremist and fitted with even a small explosive device not one of the most serious emerging risks we face today? 

The risk of terrorism is, of course, just one of the risks associated with drones. There are others, including reconnaissance with a view to criminal activity, invasion of privacy, data protection and harassment. Stories have reported the use of drones by drug cartels to transport illegal drugs across country borders. A US radar system protecting the White House apparently failed to pick up a small drone that crashed onto the lawn. 

In order to enhance the protection of the public and civil aircraft in the UK from such threats, robust regulation aimed at manufacturers and retailers of drones must be made an imminent priority. Insurers should use the opportunity to assert their influence to secure steps that create, as a minimum, some form of drone ownership recording system – even if registration as for piloted aircraft is not realistically feasible – and to direct more effectively the CAA’s existing powers of enforcement to those responsible.