The Government has set out the changes to the law it plans to make in response to the drone related disruption at Gatwick last December.
Today’s announcement takes the form of two distinct proposals:
- Firstly, the Government has laid before Parliament amendments to the Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO) to broaden the restricted zones around airports and airfields. These changes will come into force on 13 March 2019.
- Secondly, the Government has announced proposals for a new Drones Bill which would provide the police with new enforcement powers, including powers to stop and search.
These proposals follow last year’s changes to the ANO, which prohibited drones flying above 400 feet or within 1km of the perimeter of the airport. The changes announced today will increase the restricted zone around airports to 5km, together with protection for take off and landing paths, and supplement the general restrictions on flying near buildings or groups of people.
Why are changes to drone rules required?
The spate of recent high profile incidents suggest that the current rules are ineffective. This is likely to be for two reasons.
Firstly, there is a lack of awareness among drone owners in relation to the rules that apply to the use of drones. The Government is proposing to address this through a “digital tool kit” that will be made available to airports and local authorities to help them raise awareness. New requirements, introduced last year, will also come into effect in November in relation to mandatory registration for operators and online competency tests for pilots of drones over 250g.
Whether these have any effect remains to be seen. It’s unclear how registration and competency tests can be enforced, unless this is required to activate the drone, but the drive to improve awareness is to be welcomed.
Secondly, as demonstrated at Gatwick before Christmas, malicious drone usage is very difficult to stop. If someone is intent on causing disruption at an airport then it appears that exclusion zones have little effect.
The other issue is the sanctions. While the Secretary of State for Transport said that the individuals behind the Gatwick attack should face the “maximum possible custodial sentence for the damage they have done,” the reality is that the punishment for most offences under the ANO is a fine of up to £2,500.
Custodial sentences only apply where an individual recklessly or negligently acts in a manner “likely” to endanger an aircraft or person in an aircraft. That may be difficult to prove if a drone is simply causing disruption, rather than an actual threat to an aircraft.
Proposed Drones Bill
The proposed new stop and search powers under the Drones Bill will give the police the right to request a warrant to access electronic data stored on drones. It is unclear whether this would be for the purposes of inspecting any logs that track a drone’s flying history or whether it would allow the police to access other content, such as video and photographic images. The latter may prove particularly controversial.
The draft bill will be published later this year.
In the long term, the most effective way to manage malicious use will be through technology and the use of effective geofencing – something that the industry is already working on. But there are thousands of drones out there already that won’t have those controls built in.
In the meantime, increasing awareness of the rules on drones is key.