On 21 December 2016 the Government published its consultation on the Safe Use of Drones in the UK, containing various proposals to develop the UK's policy and regulatory framework. 

The consultation has been published in response to the rapid growth of private and commercial use drones in the UK and emerging drone technology and applications. 

It proposes a number of new measures including a mandatory register for all drones, a new framework of standards and licensing for UK drone pilots, and ways to manage forecasted growth in the number of drones operating in UK airspace.

Growth in the drones market and challenges

The Government has already expressed an intention to support the development of this emerging technology which is estimated to be worth £102 billion by 2025, recognising the potential benefits of creating a developed drones market in the UK. 

A cross-government drones working group led by the Department for Transport has already been set up to address the challenges.  As part of the government initiative, the CAA has authorised Amazon to operate test flights beyond the line of sight and trial new geo-fencing technology.  Innovate UK, a government agency, has provided funding for nearly 100 drone projects.

As the drone market expands and changes, the need for review and reform of the existing regime becomes necessary. 

Whilst drones qualify as aircraft and are regulated by the Air Navigation Order, there have been an increasing number of drone related incidents in the UK where rules have been breached, endangering public safety, and raising concerns about security and privacy. 

The consultation contains proposals aimed at encouraging innovation and growth in the sector but requiring safe and lawful operation, and some suggested ways to prepare for the future market for drones.  Some of the proposals are described briefly below.

Stimulating innovation and growth

The consultation asks whether current drone testing sites (the West Wales UAS Environment testing centre and the Westcott Centre in Buckinghamshire currently under development) meet the needs of start-ups and SMEs in the drone service industry, and whether Drone Innovation Zones might further encourage growth.

It is also proposed to establish drone-specific standards of pilot competency and qualifications for all operations (such a framework has long been established for pilots of manned aircraft).  This would include a formal remote pilot's licence, for complex operations that go beyond the line of sight, essentially establishing a new drone pilot profession. 

Since insurance requirements set out in EU law are considered by many to be either too low or not applicable to current and future drone operations, the consultation proposes further powers for the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation setting out detailed insurance requirements.

Safety and compliance

In order to improve awareness of the law amongst users, the consultation considers mandating the issuance of official guidance by manufacturers.  The consultation also asks for responses on how the current guidance including the CAA's Drone code could be improved.

In response to the rising number of drone incidents, better deterrents for leisure drone users such as increasing penalties are considered. Options for improving compliance and enforcement of flying restrictions are also considered, such as signs on the ground clearly identifying No Drone Flying Zones or the development of apps to alert users of nearby restrictions.

Foundations for a developed drone market

As new drone applications develop, the need for appropriate regulation has become apparent.  A register for drones and users would help accountability, safety, security and the collection of operational information.  Drone registration requirements have recently been introduced in the USA and Ireland, and an EU wide scheme is currently being discussed. 

The Government sets out various proposals for the registration of drones over 250g (which would include miniature drones).  The Government's proposals include innovative options pairing registration with a requirement to notify flights in certain areas via a smart phone app.  This would allow the identification of drone operators when necessary and help to collect data on the use of those drones.

The consultation then looks forward to a drone traffic management system and what this might look like.  It is suggested that this would involve the process of submitting flight plans and a requirement for permission based on other activity in the relevant area.

The consultation closes on 15 March 2017.