At the end of July 2017, the Department for Transport (DfT) published its response to the consultation on safe drone use in the UK. Highlights notably include the decision to require all users of UAVs weighing 250 grams or more to register themselves and their drones. It also provides for mandatory competency testing for leisure users. Greater education and awareness will dovetail with further restrictions on where certain drones can fly, especially in the vicinity of airports, as well as stricter enforcement and sanctions for breaches of existing and future regulations.
However, the government continues to recognise the enormous value in drone operations, citing an estimated global market value of £100 billion by 2025 (from a 2016 PwC study). As such, it is keen to explore commercial use and activities, including proper infrastructure for research and development testing areas and facilities. The options proposed involve either relaxing flight rules in rural and remote areas, creating smaller regional test sites, having a larger national drone centre (in addition to facilities at Parc Aberporth and Llanbedr in Wales) or incorporating drone testing into robotics and artificial intelligence testing centres. Many respondents indicated that it is vital to be able to test effectively, e.g. beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flying, in order to measure the validity of complex commercial operations accurately. Other factors include manoeuvrability in challenging terrain, flying under differing climate conditions and navigating ground obstacles.
The DfT consulted on competency testing and licensing for all drone users. Commercial users are already subject to these requirements, although certain industries are beginning to develop their own bespoke codes and standards. However, it is the proposal for leisure user control which will no doubt be greeted with some relief by airlines, airports and other operators in the aviation industry. As well as compulsory registration for UAVs weighing 250 grams or more, all leisure users will undertake mandatory basic knowledge (of the applicable terms of the Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO)) and skills testing. At the same time, the Government is deciding whether to increase police powers to deal with drone offences. User and drone registration might make this easier. Failure to identify perpetrators has been cited on more than one occasion as a reason for the lack of prosecutions. The £2,500 penalty for using camera-equipped UAVs within 150 metres of a large crowd of people without a CAA exemption or flying within restricted airspace may also be increased. With data protection rules (GDPR) set to become more draconian in May 2018, surveillance operators should also be aware of the consequences of breaching privacy regulations in addition to any ANO requirements.
More importantly perhaps, the government is also mulling over amendments to the ANO that would extend restrictions to flying over 400 feet for drones weighing 7kg or less. Stories of pilots spotting small drones hovering in or around the vicinity of their approach usually make national headlines. A recent study, commissioned by the DfT, the Military Aviation Authority and pilot union, BALPA, into impact damage of small drones hitting flight deck windscreen glass produced alarming results. The mid-air collision study found that exposed metal components (non-plastic encased) from 4kg drones could cause critical damage to commercial airline windscreens at high, but realistic, speeds. The results were even more stark in terms of damage done to non-birdstrike certified windscreens that are used in some helicopters. General aviation aircraft are not required to certify windscreens for birdstrikes. It is clear that there is a safety case to answer.
Elsewhere, the consultation took on board the challenge of drone electronic identification and will not pursue it in the immediate future. It however remains committed to a drone traffic management system, which will improve safety if the potential market grows as predicted over coming years. In any event, the government’s comprehensive review of drone operations and its plans to take advantage of such commercial opportunities is ambitious and broadly welcome. This is provided that sufficient action is taken to address the legitimate safety concerns of all aviation industry and other stakeholders alike.