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Vedder Thinking | Articles Necessary Regulation or the UK Government Droning On?

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Perhaps as a result of increased publicity in relation to reports of “near miss” events near UK airports, the UK Government opened a public consultation in relation to the safe use of unmanned aircraft systems (known commonly as “drones”) in the UK in early 2017. On 22 July 2017, the UK’s Department for Transport (the DfT) published their response to the consultation in a paper entitled “Unlocking the UK’s High Tech Economy: Consultation on the Safe Use of Drones in the UK.”1

The paper notes that the multi-billion dollar market is expanding, and will continue to do so; Goldman Sachs believes that spending on drones in construction, agriculture, insurance and infrastructure inspection will total US$20bn in the period 2016 to 2020, with retail and consumer sales of 7.8mn drones globally. PwC predicts that the drone application market will be worth more than US$100bn by 2025.2 It is clear that the DfT wants the UK to be at the forefront of the drone industry, a worldleading research and development centre – in this context, the UK Government’s stated aim is to develop regulatory measures in “a way that they do not raise barriers to the sector’s success and the UK realising maximum benefits.”3

Whilst the overall aim may be to ensure the UK is well placed within the sector, the paper is clear that the UK Government recognises that the misuse of drones (whether unintentional, reckless or malicious) poses challenges to safety, security and privacy.4

A study by the DfT, the Military Aviation Authority and the British Airline Pilots’ Association, testing and modelling drone impact, showed that very small drones (400g) can pose a critical risk to the windscreens and tail rotors of helicopters. For commercial aircraft, the test results reported by the study were more reassuring to stakeholders—only a much heavier drone of more than 2kg in weight would cause critical damage and, even then, only when aircraft fly at higher speeds; usually outside the range of most drone operations.5

Over 650 stakeholders responded, from aircraft pilots to insurance companies and the DfT has concluded that:

  • they will require all users of drones of 250g and above to register themselves and their drones and the UK Government will work with stakeholders to embed electronic identification and tracking capability within any registration scheme they establish; and
  • they will require mandatory competency testing (i.e. online tests) for all leisure users, with the aim to ensure that all users have a basic knowledge of the law relating to drones and how to fly them safely.6

The DfT is also exploring:

  • tightening the rules on where certain classes of drones may be flown – the proposal considers that all drones of 7kg or less should be banned above 400ft;7
  • options to increase certain of the penalties available to the courts where the law in relation to drone operations have been broken – this may include increasing the penalty for operation of a drone within 150m of a large crowd (without a related exemption from the prohibition from the CAA), and the penalty for breaching an airspace exemption, to over £2,500 where the applicable court felt the offence warranted a more severe penalty;8
  • complete bans for operations of drones where close to an airport; and
  • the powers granted to law enforcement agencies in relation to drones—this may include new powers (i) requiring the production of registration and identification documents, (ii) forcing a drone to land and (iii) to search for and seize a drone where there is a reasonable belief that a crime is about to be committed or has taken place.9

The paper also considered how the implementation of no-fly zones might be best achieved with a focus on providing more information on restrictions and potential technological innovations. Rather than singling out one solution, the paper notes that the UK Government intends to both increase the information available (and notes that new signage has been developed and its use is to be encouraged at national infrastructure sites) as well as working with stakeholders to develop electronic solutions, including in-app geo-fencing.10

  • Additionally, the DfT pledges to work with CAA to support commercial users by:
  • updating the Air Navigation Order 2016 to reflect the needs of a growing market;11
  • supporting the CAA in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of its permissions processes; and
  • setting up a joint CAA/DfT working group to work with the insurance sector and the drone industry to improve the insurance regime surrounding drones.

Looking to the future, the paper states that the UK Government will work to develop an unmanned air traffic management system (i.e. a management system for drones) and will bring forward work to create an authoritative source of airspace data for the UK. It is hoped that this will facilitate geo-fencing for drones and help to build a greater awareness for users of airspace restrictions.

Several commercial respondents to the consultation commented that developing new traffic management systems would aid the emergence of safe and reliable operations that could fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)—an aim of some commercial operators, necessary for viable operations of their businesses.12

Conclusion

Both in the consultation and the response, it is clear that the UK Government’s focus is on ensuring safety—particularly arising from operational issues in the leisure market; but the response also provides insight into the direction of the UK Government’s policy as it affects commercial operators—a determination to develop world-class systems which may, in time, help commercial operators operate in a geo-fenced, BVLOS system.

Originally published by International Law Office, August 23, 2017.

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1 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/631638/unlocking-the-uks-high-tech-economy-consultation-on-the-safe-use-ofdrones-in-the-uk-government-response.pdf.
2 Para. 2.1.
3 Para. 2.10.
4 Para. 3.11.
5 Para. 3.13.
6 It should be noted that UK commercial users already have standards that must be met.
7 Para. 3.24. It should be noted that heavier drones are already banned over this height.
8 Para. 3.23.
9 Para. 3.24.
10 Para. 3.27. Geo-fencing is the creation of a virtual or digital perimeter for a real-world geographic area.
11 It should be noted that the Order will likely need to be updated to reflect anticipated EU legislation on drones expected next year, in any event.
12 Para 3.44.



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