Last month the Department of Transport released their long-awaited response to the government consultation on drones. Released on the 22 July 2017, the response lauded the economic opportunities presented by drones across the UK. However, the crux of the response was the consideration of the future rules, regulations and education concerning drones to encourage their responsible use. The consultation itself is split into nine main areas and these will be considered throughout the rest of this article.
Testing of drones
After inviting responses about the current system of UK testing centres, the government have decided to embark on further exploration and review of this area. This decision appears to have been made due to low levels of industry awareness of the availability of testing sites.
Following response from industry leaders highlighting sector-specific published standards for drone use, the government has decided against requiring further competency tests for commercial operators beyond that required by the CAA.
The consultation response flags the complexity of imposing insurance on drone operators, and as such the government is launching a 'drone insurance project group' to explore the issues in this area. Their government appears to be inclined to amend regulation if this group suggests insurance for drones should be mandatory.
Improving leisure drone operators' awareness of law
The government's aim here is to increase drone operator's awareness of the law relating to drones. To achieve this goal, the government has decided to introduce mandatory competency testing for leisure users whose drone weighs above 250g. The competency test would include a test on the law in the UK and how to fly safely. Another tool to increase awareness covered in the response was the promotion of successful prosecutions of drone operators. It seems likely that publicity of prosecutions will form a key part of future enforcement strategy.
The government announced that, in terms of the legal regime in place for drone use, they are looking to update the Air Navigation Order 2016 after the implementation of relevant EU rules in the middle of 2018. Not only that, but they confirmed they were looking further at increasing the maximum penalty for offences involving the misuse of drones near crowds and in restricted airspace, and were considering introducing greater powers for law enforcement, such as powers to demand documentation on request, to ground a drone flown illegally and powers to search and seize a drone where there is a suspicion of criminal activity occurring, or about to occur.
Not only that, but the government confirmed it will consider banning drones flying within a certain distance from airports without authority from air traffic control or the CAA. It seems likely that this is inspired by high profile stories in the media regarding aircraft near misses, as well as the result of the recent safety tests commissioned by the Department of Transport.
No drone flying zones (NDFZ's) and enforcement
The government proposed two primary options under this heading; improving communication of NDFZs and making information regarding restrictions accessible. The government encouraged the use of signage and is considering digital publication of NDFZs. A further interesting point of note is that the government is considering the use of geo-fencing technology and how it can be used to prevent drones from entering certain areas. In order to explore this area further, the government has created a pilot project, Project Chatham, which will provide further clarity on the viability of implementing geo-fencing within the next year.
Perhaps the stand-out point from this response is that the government will require all operators of drones weighing more than 250g to register themselves, and potentially each drone. This weight limit is directly informed by the safety tests carried out by the Department of Transport, and the government indicates that the registration process is likely to include a mandatory education element. Sadly, there is little clarity as to how this register will be implemented, who will have responsibility for it or if there will be penalties for non-compliance. The government have stated that the following decisions have been taken:
- Operators will have to register themselves if they operate drones weighing above 250g
- It will be highly likely that a charge will be imposed for registration
- It will also be likely that there will be mandatory educational requirements to pass before registration can be completed
This is one of the proposals that appears to have been dropped following the consultation. The government are instead considering the use of a phone application to notify relevant authorities of a flight rather than introducing a system to identify drones by persons on the ground. Whilst electronic ID systems would make enforcement of the Air Navigation Order easier, it seems sensible not to consider its use when the technology is years away from market readiness and subject to international consensus on electronic identification standards.
Drone traffic management
Here, the government has stated that they wish to continue to explore the development of unmanned traffic management systems (UTM's) and create a single source of authoritative UK air space data. This suggestion is also linked in with the use of geo-fencing as a method to enforce NDFZs.
Whilst there are elements of the government's response that lack detail, it is a useful indication of the government's focus on regulation, registration and education. The key points of the response appear to be:
- The requirement for all drone operators operating a drone above 250g to register themselves on some form of registration database
- The consideration of increased enforcement powers and the future alterations to the Air Navigation Order 2016
- An increased focus on education relating to no drone flying zones, best practice and standards of competence expected of drone operators
- The promotion of geo-fencing as a useful tool
Drone operators will undoubtedly view the response with concern because of the scope of the intended changes the government are aiming to introduce, as well as the lack of substantive detail for some proposals. Drone operators should consider the government response and prepare themselves for the future changes, especially if they run a business that uses drones. Whilst some of the proposals will not be introduced soon, it is likely that some of the proposals could be introduced in the next few years, and it always pays to be prepared.