Reports that the crew of a recent British Airways flight into Heathrow believed that it had collided with a drone have triggered debate over the efficacy of the law covering what are slightly cumbersomely called unmanned aerial systems.
Regulations already exist to control the use of what are widely referred to as drones in the UK. Public awareness of these rules, and whether the guidance now provided by the Civil Aviation Authority is proving effective, is the real issue.
An additional question is whether all drones should be registered, or at least all apart from the very lightest. The British government is publicly discussing increased drone use and that point is expected to feature prominently when a report is published in a few weeks.
So will a more extensive registration requirement reduce the risk of drones colliding with aircraft?
A registration process was put in place late last year in the US requiring any drone heavier than 250g to be registered. Likewise, Ireland has introduced a scheme for drones heavier than 1kg, and, from the beginning of this month, Turkey requires registration of drones heavier than 500g.
The US scheme is based around the operators registering details and then marking a number on any drones they fly. The theory is that if an accident occurs, the owner or operator can be traced and made accountable for any consequences.
Of course, objections can be raised. For example, is registration any use in relation to complaints over the invasion of privacy when a vehicle is so small, or so far away, that those on the ground cannot read a registration number? Would users fail to change the registration when they sell the vehicle, resulting in an innocent former user being blamed for misuse? Would the system become overly dependent on implementation through retailers or manufacturers, and thereby miss the operators of home-built drones?
Successful prosecutions have already been brought against individuals who have broken existing regulations, but registration alone may be pointless if a particular drone could not be identified. Would a registration system achieve its objective only if drones also have to carry an automatic identification system?
There certainly will be instances where registration, coupled with an ability to identify drones, would improve accountability. However, it is believed that the majority of registrants are likely to behave responsibly, whereas those who are most likely to ignore the regulations will also ignore a requirement to register.
Effective enforcement against people who deliberately try to push the boundaries is a different game from countering those who are simply careless or ignorant. Good regulation starts with an identified mischief to be addressed and a clear and achievable means to do so. Any future regulation must not merely be a reaction to be seen to do something.
First published on "The Brief"