The UK is witnessing an exciting and fast growing drone market. This is symptomatic of what is a staggering global growth in the robotics and autonomous systems market. Small drone toys have now appeared on the shelves in shops, no longer do they need to be ordered online. The videos on the internet show just how popular hobby flying drones has become; Christmas 2017 saw an internet sensation - a human flying drone. Drones are being used across many sectors. They are commonly used at sporting events to capture the action, although this has not been without incident. The construction sector has been using them for some time for aerial surveys, and drones are being used to inspect and maintain key road, rail and energy infrastructure. As we increasingly want consistent access to the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) market, online retailers are exploring using drones for deliveries and the commercial property sector is also looking at having delivery pads on their buildings.

Drones have been employed for mine clearance and in surveying land affected by the Fukushima accident. Closer to home drones have been used to carry out aerial mapping of nuclear power stations. Police, fire services and search and rescue services use drones in emergency situations. It has recently been reported that a drone ambulance has been developed. The global market has been estimated at over £100bn by 2025 by PwC, (endnote 1). May 2017 saw Bristol host the world's biggest community for commercial drones - Dronetech Europe 2017.

Nearly 3,000 commercial drone operator licenses have already been issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The proliferation of uses for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also referred to as Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) and, commonly known as drones, does now appear to have reached a tipping point. They are an example of where a new technology is having an effect on the market such that the Government needs to react and the UK is now considering increased regulation. With reports of the conflict between their use with other regulated activities such as airports and military activities as well as other secure sites and with potential for impact on safety the issues continue to receive attention in the July 2017 consultation on the future of UK aviation.

A Department for Transport consultation sought views on the proposals on safe use of drones in the UK, (endnote 2). The stated aim of the proposed changes are to create conditions for the cutting edge commercial use of drones to create high tech jobs; improve services and boost the economy; as well as addressing safety, security and privacy challenges.

Counted amongst the respondents are 21 traditional aviation sector organisations including airports. There were also respondents from the insurance sector.

We summarise below the proposals which were put forward under a number of themes, together with the Government's response.

Drone testing

Government will give further consideration to additional drone testing sites. In the meantime it will seek to collaborate with industry and the CAA to improve awareness of current testing sites, particularly smaller local ones and make it clearer how to set up a testing or 'go fly' site.

Government will continue to work closely with the Drone Industry Action Group (DIAG) and other drone use experts to facilitate and encourage these bodies, as the leaders in their fields, to develop and promote relevant specialist standards for their fields, and then seek to feed these into regulatory cycles or guidance at an appropriate later stage, (endnote 3).

Government will convene, with the CAA, a 'drone insurance project group' to work together to develop solutions and implement best practice. If through the work of this group it becomes clear that new or amendments to regulation are required, these may be implemented at a later stage.

'Develop the UK’s policy and regulatory framework to ensure safety and operation within the law'

Improving leisure drone user awareness

Government has decided to proceed with the implementation of a registration scheme for all users of drones of 250g and above in weight. The indication is that the new scheme will enable targeted education of drone users.

Improving deterrents

Government will carry out further scoping and further explore the justifications for the following:

  • Increasing the maximum penalty for offences under the Air Navigation Order 2016 (ANO) for flying a drone with a camera within 150m of a large crowd without CAA exemption, and for breaching an airspace restriction
  • Banning the use of all drones within a certain distance of airports, unless the drone user has permission from air traffic control or the CAA
  • Additionally, the government 'is minded to' amend the ANO to ban all drones of 7kg or less in weight flying above 400ft (or 122m) (drones above 7kg are already banned from flying above this height).

'No Drone Flying Zones' and signage

Given the support from consultees, the Government will proceed with implementing both proposed options. Since the consultation was published it has developed signage and will be encouraging the use of the signs at national infrastructure sites such as airports, power stations and government buildings. Government has also launched a pilot project which will regularly publish data for UK areas that drones (commercial and leisure) should not be flown. It is intended that the data will also be published in formats that will allow integration with map apps, and government will work with manufacturers to implement geo-fencing.

Registration

Some aspects of the registration scheme - such as penalties for not complying - will be subject to further exploration. On elements of the registration process, the following decisions have been taken:

  • Registration will be mandatory for all operators of drones weighing 250g and above.
  • Operators of drones of 250g and above will be required to register their details. The exact threshold at which a registered operator will be required to register the individual details of their drone will be scoped further before a decision is taken.
  • It is highly likely that there will be a charge for registration. The basis of the charge would be to cover the cost of running the scheme.
  • When undertaking registration it will likely also be necessary to complete relevant mandatory educational requirements.
  • Government will work with model aircraft flying clubs to examine ways in which it may be possible to exempt members of model aircraft flying clubs with adequate safety cultures and practices from certain elements of registration and other educational requirements, or where their club will be permitted to undertake regulatory requirements on their behalf.

Electronic identification

Given some of the outstanding questions around this, government will not pursue an electronic identification requirement in the immediate future. However, it will continue to scope out issues and challenges that this requirement could pose, and work with international partners and industry to develop a sophisticated and appropriate standard. It expects an international consensus on an electronic identification product standard will emerge and be implemented over the next few years.

Government will continue pursuing the development of a drone traffic management system in collaboration and consultation with industry and international partners. As already described above, it will implement several measures integral to the running of a future drone traffic management system (registration and geo-fencing). This it considers necessary, to help cater for the future commercial users and develop towards Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights.

The Government has clearly signalled its intention to modernise the UK airspace (endnote 4) and encourage innovation and technological investment in drones. At the same time companies, particularly those in the transport, construction and infrastructure sectors, are likely to want to maximise the efficiency savings and opportunities that drones provide (endnote 5).

Through the consultation it has also become clearer that a number of complex issues will require further consideration before the regulatory environment for drone operation can become established.

While it would appear good practice as a minimum to obtain the landowner's consent to flying a drone over their land on every occasion, the UK law is yet be tested in relation to the rights of landowners with drone overflying.

Data protection and privacy risks also need continued consideration. In surveying eg a site with a view to future acquisition and in that process gathering information from a drone to, eg provide 3D modelling data to show landownership and environmental risk, issues may arise. These may include how data is collected and stored, especially in relation to confidential or sensitive data about the landowner (endnote 6).

Commercial drone operators in particular need to be aware of their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Other relevant legislation and industry guidance, such as the Protection of Freedom's Act 2012 and the ICO's code of practice on surveillance cameras and personal information will need to be taken into account also.

Operators will also need to consider the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May 2018. This will bring in stricter compliance requirements than those of the DPA including, the additional information to be included in privacy notices and a more aggressive sanctions regime.

In relation to the use of drones for aerial work, the Information Commissioner advises carrying out a pre-emptive Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) in order to fully understand the purpose and scope of the operation and any potential infringement of the DPA.

The privacy aspect of drone use is likely to remain a hot topic for stakeholders and public pressure groups alike. It is to be anticipated that PIAs are likely to become mandatory for all commercial drone operations. Similarly, drone usage policies (setting out how data will be collected, used and stored), may also become a standard inclusion on company websites, (endnote 7).

How the law develops, together with the insurance products alongside the new technology, will be crucial to the deployment of drones in commercial work. In the meantime drone operators and those that commission their use, will need to:

  • be alive to the implementation of the measures identified above
  • remain aware of the issues surrounding landowner trespass
  • be mindful of interference with privacy and data protection rights
  • be sure to have discharged the various registration requirements of the wider regulatory framework.
  1. Unlocking the UK's High Tech Economy: Consultation on the Safe Use of drones in the UK, Department for Transport, December 2016 and March 2017.
  2. UAS Operations Management Standards and Guidelines – Issue 1 2017 (HSE05), UK Oil &Gas. Companies wanting to use drones on or near Network Rail or Transport for London infrastructure may access guidance and apply to be formally qualified as suppliers via RISQS.
  3. Beyond the horizon: The future of UK aviation, July 2017
  4. Clarity from above: transport infrastructure. The commercial applications of drone technology in the road and rail sectors, January 2017, PwC.
  5. The Information Commissioner has stated that drone use may infringe rights to privacy and a private life if the drone is used intrusively (House of Lords European Union Committee: Civilian Use of Drones in the EU). The Commissioner also has the power to impose a substantial fine where a drone operator seriously contravenes the DPA.
  6. Lee, Peter; Drone laws – Shaping and Industry; Society for Computers and Law Magazine.