Drone reforms take flight

The chaos produced by drone sightings at the UK's second busiest airport over the busy Christmas holiday season showed all too painfully why legal control of drones is needed. With thousands stranded at Gatwick and others having to cancel or rebook their travel plans the negative side of this exciting technology received all the attention. Similar if less severe problems surfaced at Heathrow early this year. Clearly tighter laws are necessary, but care is needed to avoid killing off an industry with many potential benefits. Government predicts rapid growth in commercial drone registrations, reaching 400,000 by 2030, and it is keen to encourage legitimate use.

The UK has in fact been working on improving the law in this area for some time. Legal changes made in 2018 introduced enhanced restrictions for small drones (under 7kg). These required users to obtain CAA authorisation for small drone flights above 400 feet and in defined zones around airports. The changes also introduced a registration scheme for drones over 250g, to take effect in November 2019.

These adjustments were not intended to be the end of the story, and an extensive consultation held from July to September 2018 explored the options for more far-reaching reforms.

Now the Department for Transport has published its consultation response - Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK. This sets out plans in the following areas:

  • extending the protection around airports to 4.6km with rectangular extensions to protect runways. These will be introduced quickly through amendment of the Air Navigation Order.
  • introducing new police powers to call for documents such as operator registration documents, drone pilot licences, CAA authorisation for specific flights; to seize drones or require them to land; and to issue fixed penalty notices for misuse. A Drones Bill will be published to take this forward.
  • developing policy on counter-drone technology to address unlawful use, while recognising the need to be clear and specific, and include suitable safeguards. Understandably, many consultation respondents were concerned about overreach in this area with worries about “nanny state” or “Big Brother”-type monitoring and control. But the recent airport shut-downs highlight the need for action to protect the wider public. So it is “watch this space” for counter-drone policy.

Plans were put forward to introduce a minimum age of 18 for registration as a drone operator. (Note that no age limit was proposed for drone pilots – young people may be very competent technically but should not be expected to take legal responsibility for operation of the drone. Operators are a separate category and assume the burden of legal compliance.) However, the European Aviation Safety Agency is exploring age restrictions for drone pilots. The Government intends to engage with that process before implementing potentially conflicting rules.

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