Drones - the key legal issues

Drone usage has evolved from primarily military purposes to a variety of commercial and non-commercial uses today.  Some estimates put global spending on drones at almost $91 billion over the next decade, making drones one of the most dynamic components of the aerospace sector.

The EU Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, recently outlined the EU's intention of making drones part of the European citizens' daily lives by 2019. A set of European uniform standards will be established to create a ‘U-Space': a framework for all individuals and businesses operating drones at lower levels, up to 150m high.

In light of the increased use of drones and potential for a drone service market, there are a number of legal issues which arise. We focus on UK rules here. There is little international consistency and you'll need to check the details for use in other countries, although many of the same principles will apply.

1    Flying in congested areas

There are restrictions on operating drones in congested areas, at certain heights or directly over people and vehicles. UK rules say that drones of specific weights must not be flown within 50m of people, structures or vehicles. Additionally, drones cannot fly within 150m of a congested area. Certain permissions must be obtained before the drone can be flown commercially.

2    Insurance

European law requires certain operators of drones to purchase third party liability insurance. Insurance like this will need to be sought from specialist brokers. Failure to obtain suitable insurance cover may prove costly in the event of an accident.

3    Data protection and privacy

Drone use may infringe the right to privacy and private life if the drone is flown intrusively. Breach of privacy is now potentially a very expensive civil wrong. The UK Data Protection Act and similar laws around Europe will also apply if the drone can take images or videos of identifiable individuals.

4    Cyber-security

Cyber-security risks may arise when using radio frequency spectra to communicate between the drone's ground control and the drone platform, and between instruments on the drone such as cameras and data receivers. Drones are therefore vulnerable to hacking, interceptions and signal manipulation during flight. 

5    Trespass and nuisance

Drones pose complex questions over the torts (legal wrongs) of trespass and nuisance. An person may be able to bring a claim if their right to quiet enjoyment of their property is violated by an intentional or reckless act of a drone user.

6     Negligence

If a drone user fails to fly the drone in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, or in an irresponsible way, and injures someone or causes damage as a result they could find themselves the target of a damages claim.

7    Confidentiality

The use of drones to capture images over private property could lead to a claim for breach confidentiality, especially if a business's trade secrets are revealed.

8    Criminal offences

If a drone pilot breaks aviation rules, for example by flying recklessly or too close to a person or their property, then they could be committing a criminal offence and may be prosecuted. In 2014, Robert Knowles became the first person to be successfully prosecuted for the dangerous and illegal flying of an unmanned aircraft.

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority has produced a helpful summary of the basics. You can see that here.

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