Following multiple drone sightings at the UK's Gatwick Airport in December 2018, approximately 120,000 passengers were disrupted. Fortunately, no planes were hit during that incident. Unfortunately, the culprits have not been caught. The risks from drones include injuring people, damaging property or being used for terrorism, harassment and/or invading of privacy.

According to a 2018 report by PwC, there will be 76,000 drones operating in UK skies and their use will add an extra £42 billion to the UK's gross domestic product (GDP) as of 2030. As drone use increases, so do safety concerns. Unsurprisingly, regulation is increasing. From 30 November 2019, under UK legislation, 'operators' of drones between 250g and 20kg must register and the 'pilots' of such drones must pass an online test. The EU has also enacted two 2019 Regulations, one on the design of drones and the other on their operation.

The UK and EU rules have many similarities, eg the maximum height at which drones can be flown is 120m and drones weighing less than 250g have the least amount of regulation. However, when it comes to the detail, the regimes also have many differences. For example, there is no minimum age limit in the UK to fly a drone weighing less than 20kg. Conversely, the minimum flying age under EU law will generally be 16 years for drones weighing between 250g and 25kg. Brexit could therefore make a real difference. No Brexit (at least as regards drone laws) will mean the UK will need to harmonise with EU drone regulation.

In this series of five articles, we look at the use of drones, the UK's approach to drones safety and how the EU is responding. For a high-level legal consideration of drones when used to harass people and invade their privacy, see here. There are also other important issues such as data protection, as well as liability, product safety and insurance in the event of an accident or malicious use. However, these topics are outside the scope of this series.

Use and the need for regulation

Drone use is growing rapidly in the UK. Recreational use has grown as consumer-grade devices have become increasingly sophisticated and cheaper. It has been estimated that British consumers purchased 1.5 million drones during the Christmas period of 2017 compared to 530,000 drones in the whole of 2014.

The uplift in the use of drones also has potential to bring significant economic benefits arising from cost reductions and efficiency improvements. We can expect to see drones used in such diverse areas as transportation and delivery, environmental monitoring, construction, inspections, manufacturing and precision agriculture. PwC's report suggests that 628,000 people could be employed in the drone economy by 2030. Consideration should be given now to how vulnerable your business is to drone-driven disruption and what opportunities for the use of drones exist.

In addition, law enforcement authorities and rescue services can use drones to monitor and search for people and/or operate in hostile environments. Drones can also be deployed, for example, to help put out fires in high rise buildings or other inaccessible places. The military use drones for surveillance and missile strikes and (alongside law enforcement authorities) have also developed systems to detect and destroy dangerous drones. Criminals and terrorists will try to use technologies to evade detection whilst law enforcement will try to stay ahead of the game. But whatever the risks of an accident or malicious use, the consequences can be catastrophic, which is why legislatures have been busy trying to regulate drone use.