Drones are becoming commonplace in several countries in the world, including the UK. As usage increases, so too does the call for legislation to make drone ownership, and flying, safe for all.
At one time, drones were solely used in the military world. Their commercial uses were explored and they moved in to other industries, such as agriculture for monitoring crops, medical for deliveries to remote areas and energy for inspecting turbines. They even appeared in rescue operations, used to send in supplies when all other routes were inaccessible. Today, however, they are also likely to make an appearance on Christmas gift lists as manufacturers create commodity versions at lower prices.
While drones may be viewed by some as toys, they are in fact unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their widening use by commercial organisations and civilians does lead to some concerns. Unsurprisingly, the first is around safety with increasing reports of near misses involving drones and aircraft – it was estimated earlier in 2016 that such near misses had increased fourfold within a year.
In April this year, there was an actual incident. The pilot of a BA flight from Geneva to Heathrow, carrying 132 passengers and five crew members, reported that the aircraft had been hit by a UAV. There were no casualties and the craft was undamaged, but it was significant in terms of the potential dangers.
Other growing concerns surround privacy and the potential to record images of people without consent. There is scope here for coming up against the Data Protection Act or the CCTV code of practice. The latter has been extended to include the use of drones and calls on domestic users to act responsibly.
The current rules
At the current state of play, you could receive a drone for Christmas and – if it weighs less than 20 kg and is not used for commercial purposes – there is nothing stopping you taking it out for a spin.
There are some flight restrictions. The drone must not fly within 150 metres of a congested area, or within 50 metres of a person, vehicle, vessel or structure not under the control of a pilot. Also you need permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) if you want your drone to go above 400 feet in altitude or more than 500 metres horizontally. If the drone is over 20 kg, it can only be legally flown in certified areas. For commercial use, a licence is required from the CAA and to gain this you need to demonstrate sufficient competency in drone flying.
The move for more legislation
Last year, the House of Lords’ EU Committee made clear that drone traffic needs to be managed more strictly and safety issues addressed. It called for the compulsory registration of commercial and civilian drones via an online database or app. The government is due to publish a strategy on the use of drones later this year and there is likely to be a push towards traceability as an initial step towards controlling drone traffic.