The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill was introduced to Parliament on 9 January 2020 and had its second reading on 27 January 2020. If passed in its current form, the Bill will introduce a number of measures to control the use of drones and other unmanned aircraft as well as granting new powers to the Transport Secretary in relation to modernisation of airspace.

Background

The aviation industry, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Government have been working on a programme of airspace modernisation aimed at reducing airspace congestion and decreasing CO2 emissions, as well as implementation of measures to crackdown on the misuse of unmanned aircraft (UA).

In 2018, the Government launched several consultations to address these issues, including “Aviation 2050 – the future of UK Aviation” and “Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK”. This follows a sharp increase in the number of incidents involving a UA coming within unsafe proximity of a manned aircraft, from six incidents in 2014 to 126 incidents in 2018, as well as a number of high-profile cases such as the December 2018 disruption at London Gatwick airport.

A number of measures are already in place to combat UA misuse; the Government published a counter drone strategy in October 2019 and from November 2019 it has been mandatory for small unmanned aircraft operators to register and take an online competency test. There have, however, been calls for further action to be taken.

Key changes introduced in the Bill

Airspace change proposals

Part 1 of the Bill focuses on the airspace modernisation programme and the desire to create quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys. To date, airport participation in the programme has been on a voluntary basis leaving open the possibility that one airport could delay the entire programme; the Government and the CAA do not currently have any powers to prevent this.

The Bill provides new powers for the Transport Secretary to direct airports, and other entities involved in air navigation, to progress airspace change proposals. Such powers are delegable to the CAA and penalty for contravention of enforcement orders may result in a fixed fine of up to 10% of turnover.

UA proposals

A UA is any aircraft operating or designed to operate autonomously or to be piloted remotely. UAs most commonly used include drones and model aircraft.

The Government is keen to use UAs to increase productivity and efficiency and acknowledges that they are crucial in emergency and search efforts, reducing risks to people working in hazardous sectors, delivering medicines and monitoring environment change. However, misuse of UAs can have a significant adverse economic impact (such as the disruption to London Gatwick) and pose security and safety concerns. The Bill provides the police with greater powers to prevent such misuse of UAs.

The Bill would enable police to ground a UA where there is a reasonable belief that an offence is being or is likely to be committed and to stop and search any person or vehicle where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that they will find a UA involved in the commission of certain offences. Police may enter and search premises to investigate a UA related offence but only if the appropriate warrant has been obtained in advance.

The Bill will also amend the Police Act 1977 to enable the use of counter-UA technologies to prevent the use of UA to commit certain offences.

Contravention may result in a fixed penalty notice.

Comment

We expect the proposals to crackdown on the misuse of UAs will be largely welcomed in the airspace industry, however, concerns have been expressed that the measures go too far and police powers to stop and search are disproportionate. The consultation, “Stop and search: extending police powers to cover offences related to unmanned aircraft (drones)…”, was conducted prior to the London Gatwick disruption and the Home Office ultimately decided to introduce such power but to keep its scope under review.