The current global UAV market is estimated at $4bn, but that is expected to grow to $100bn or more during the next 10 years. Major industries, such as construction and infrastructure, transport, media and entertainment, agriculture, security and mining are expected to see drone use grow rapidly over the next decade.
Many types of inspection or survey tasks (e.g. of infrastructure or land) are already being conducted using drones potentially much quicker and cheaper than previous methods. There can also be safety benefits by using drones rather than employees e.g. avoiding workers climbing towers or carrying out rope access. In January Oil & Gas UK published guidance on the use of drones offshore for aerial surveys and inspections, such is their growing popularity.
With any new way of working, whilst there are many benefits, it will introduce new risks that will have to be managed. UAVs are small aircraft and are classified as such in the UK. Therefore their use is subject to UK aviation law. The law applies to consumer and commercial use of drones and sets out limitations on their use. If you were not aware of the laws governing personal use of drones, you are not alone - a CAA study showed that the majority of drone users could not recall the rules on drone use - the CAA’s drone code can be accessed here. Commercial users are required to undertake an assessment and obtain permission from the CAA before carrying out commercial drone operations.
Although the CAA will grant permission to a drone operator to carry out operations, that does not mean that it can be assumed that it is safe to do so. Commercial drone operators, like the rest of the UK aviation industry, are still subject to UK health and safety laws. Therefore the drone operator needs to assess the risks posed not only by the drone itself but also by all the various factors of the particular environment that it will be operating in (e.g. meteorological conditions, airspace, structures, radio and magnetic interference and people). Advances in technology such as collision detection, return-to-base, extended battery life and weather-proofing can help to address these risks and will be an area of rapid advancement.
The CAA has stated that drone operations “must be as safe as manned aircraft” and as drone use expands, the regulatory requirements on drone operators will increase becoming closer to mainstream civil aviation requirements. The UK government consultation on the safe use of drones and how to grow the industry, is looking at applying some of those aspects already in general aviation requirements, such as registration of drones, fitting of transponders and traffic management systems. The consultation is open until 15 March and can be accessed here.
Like the technology, aviation law for drones will develop rapidly over the next few years. But as the UK’s health and safety regime is goal setting, rather than prescriptive, commercial drone operators will still require to keep us safe, at least until the rise of Skynet.