Introduction

Perhaps as a result of increased publicity relating to reports of near-miss events close to UK airports, in early 2017 the government opened a public consultation concerning the safe use of unmanned aircraft systems (commonly known as 'drones') in the United Kingdom.

On July 22 2017 the Department for Transport published its response to the consultation in a paper entitled "Unlocking the UK's High Tech Economy: Consultation on the Safe Use of Drones in the UK".(1)

Government response

The paper acknowledges that the multibillion-dollar drone market is expanding, and will continue to do so. For example, Goldman Sachs believe that spending on drones in construction, agriculture, insurance and infrastructure inspection will total $20 billion between 2016 and 2020, with retail and consumer sales of 7.8 million drones globally. PwC predicts that the drone application market will be worth more than $100 billion by 2025.(2)

It is clear that the Department for Transport wants the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of the drone industry and a world-leading research and development centre. In this context, the government's stated aim is to develop regulatory measures in "a way that they do not raise barriers to the sector's success and the UK realising maximum benefits".(3)

While the overall aim may be to ensure that the United Kingdom is well placed within the sector, the paper makes clear that the government recognises that the misuse of drones (whether unintentional, reckless or malicious) poses challenges to safety, security and privacy.(4)

Drone research

A study by the Department of Transport, the Military Aviation Authority and the British Airline Pilots' Association, which tested and modelled drone impact, showed that very small drones (ie, weighing up to 400 grammes) can pose a critical risk to the windscreens and tail rotors of helicopters. For commercial aircraft, the test results were more reassuring for stakeholders, as only much heavier drones (ie, weighing over 2 kilograms (kg)) would cause critical damage and, even then, only if they fly at higher speeds, which are usually outside the range of most drone operations.(5)

Over 650 stakeholders responded, from aircraft pilots to insurance companies. The Department for Transport concluded that it will require:

  • all users of drones weighing 250g and above to register themselves and their drones – the government will work with stakeholders to embed electronic identification and tracking capabilities within any registration scheme they establish; and
  • mandatory competency testing (ie, online tests) for all leisure users to ensure that all users have a basic knowledge of the law relating to drones and how to fly them safely.(6)

Additional plans

According to the paper, the Department for Transport is also considering:

  • tightening the rules on where certain classes of drones may be flown – the proposal considers that all drones of 7kg or less should be banned from flying above 400 feet;(7)
  • options to increase some of the penalties available to the courts where the law relating to drone operations have been broken – this may include increasing the penalty for operating a drone within 150 metres of a large crowd (without a related exemption from the prohibition from the Civil Aviation Authority) and for breaching an airspace exemption to over £2,500 where the applicable court considers the offence to warrant a more severe penalty;(8)
  • a complete ban on drone operations near airports; and
  • amending the powers granted to law enforcement agencies in relation to drones – this may include new powers:
    • requiring the production of registration and identification documents;
    • forcing a drone to land; and
    • to search for and seize a drone where there is a reasonable belief that a crime is about to be committed or has taken place.(9)

The paper also considers how the implementation of no-fly zones might be best achieved with a focus on providing more information on restrictions and potential technological innovations. Rather than providing one solution, the paper notes that the government intends to both increase the information available (eg, new signage has been developed and its use should be encouraged at national infrastructure sites) as well as working with stakeholders to develop electronic solutions, including in-app geo-fencing.(10)

Civil Aviation Authority

Further, the Department for Transport pledges to work with the Civil Aviation Authority to support commercial users by:

  • updating the Air Navigation Order 2016 to reflect the needs of a growing market;(11)
  • supporting the Civil Aviation Authority in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of its permissions processes; and
  • establishing a joint Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport working group to bring together the insurance and drone sectors to improve the insurance regime surrounding drones.

Traffic management

Looking ahead, the paper states that the government will work to develop an unmanned air traffic management system (ie, a management system for drones) and will bring forward work to create an authoritative source of airspace data for the United Kingdom. This will hopefully facilitate geo-fencing for drones and raise awareness of airspace restrictions.

Beyond visual line of sight

Several commercial respondents to the consultation have commented that developing new traffic management systems would aid the emergence of safe and reliable operations that could fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) – an aim of some commercial operators where BVLOS flights are necessary for viable business operations.(12)

Comment

Both in the consultation and the response, it is clear that the government's focus is on ensuring safety, particularly relating to operational issues in the leisure market. However, the response also provides insight into the direction of the government's policy as it affects commercial operators and its determination to develop world-class systems which may soon help commercial operators operate in a geo-fenced, BVLOS system.

For further information on this topic please contact John Pearson at Vedder Price LLP by telephone (+44 20 3667 2900?) or email (jpearson@vedderprice.com). The Vedder Price LLP website can be accessed at www.vedderprice.com.

Endnotes

(1) Available here.

(2) Para 2.1.

(3) Para 2.10.

(4) Para 3.11.

(5) Para 3.13.

(6) UK commercial users already have standards that must be met.

(7) Para 3.24. It should be noted that heavier drones are already banned over this height.

(8) Para 3.23.

(9) Para 3.24.

(10) Para 3.27. 'Geo-fencing' is the creation of a virtual or digital perimeter for a real-world geographic area.

(11) In any event, the order will likely need to be updated to reflect anticipated EU legislation on drones expected next year.

(12) Para 3.44.

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