The Department for Transport has confirmed several amendments to the Air Navigation Order in an effort to advance regulations governing the use of drones in the UK.
New laws introduced today will restrict all drones from flying above 400 feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries. The Department for Transport will also force drone pilots to register their craft and take an online safety test.
The altitude and airport-related restrictions will come into effect on 30 July 2018. Pilots have until 30 November 2019 to register their aircraft and sit the online tests.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and individual airports will have the power to grant exemptions, according to a statement from the DfT.
Ensuring drones are used safely and responsibly
The law changes have been framed as a move by the DfT to protect manned aircraft, although it’s not clear to what extent the proposals have been driven by science rather than the ‘near misses’ that have been reported in a mainstream media that equates all forms of robotics with danger.
To date, no manned aircraft passengers have been injured following a mid-air collision with a drone. In fact, the technology is saving lives more than it’s putting them at risk.
There are also question marks over how many collisions have even occurred. Drones are often blamed before investigations have begun; plastic bags and even bats have emerged as the actual culprits in some high-profile cases.
Today’s announcement from the DfT dates back to a summary paper of a study released last year that sought to justify tougher measures on drone pilots. At the time, the British government-funded study received plenty of criticism. Both its methodology and testing appeared contrived to come to dramatic conclusions to justify the new policy announcements.
Calls for the disclosure of the full research methods came from the Drone Manufacturer’s Alliance Europe (DMAE), made up of industry giants DJI, GoPro, 3DR, and Parrot.
“Some of the most alarming findings in the DfT’s summary are based on an object that resembles a javelin more than a drone,” said DMAE spokesman Daniel Brinkwerth at the time.
“The study’s authors could not find a way to launch a four-kilogram drone against an aircraft windscreen, so they mounted two motors, a heavy camera, and an oversized battery on nylon arms. This object could never fly, much less encounter an airliner at high altitude. Researchers need access to the full test results to understand whether this is an acceptable shortcut for scientific research.”
Research into collisions between drones and manned aircraft has also been carried out in the US, with different results. But the DfT will rightly point to a year-on-year increase in the report of drone incidents involving other aircraft – with 89 occurring in 2017.
Although UK pilots will be justified in questioning their foundations, the laws aren’t so draconian that hobbyist pilots and aspiring commercial flyers will be prevented from exploring and enjoying drone technology.
Following the announcement, UK aviation minister Baroness Sugg said, “We are seeing fast growth in the numbers of drones being used, both commercially and for fun. Whilst we want this industry to innovate and grow, we need to protect planes, helicopters, and their passengers, from the increasing numbers of drones in our skies.”
Drone laws: A measured response?
Leading drone manufacturer DJI has welcomed the DfT’s new measures. Christian Struwe, head of Public Policy Europe at the company, believes that they strike the right balance between safety, accountability, and public confidence.
“The Department for Transport’s updates to the regulatory framework strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing the benefits of drone technology to British businesses and the public at large,” he said.
“The vast majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, and governments, aviation authorities, and drone manufacturers agree we need to work together to ensure all drone pilots know basic safety rules. We are therefore particularly pleased about the Department for Transport’s commitment to accessible online testing as a way of helping drone users to comply with the law.”
Internet of Business says
It’s difficult to argue against the implementation of registration and safety tests for drone pilots in the UK. Existing commercial pilots already have to pass tests to gain the CAA’s Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO). However, it’s not clear if they will also be required to pass what is expected to be a relatively simple online test.
Drone users who flout the new height or airport boundary restrictions could be charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft. This could result in an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or a combination of the two. Pilots who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000.
How easy these regulations will be to enforce is a different question, however. There are already concerns among commercial pilots that paid work is going to those who don’t have a licence but are working regardless.
A smooth exemption process will also be key to ensuring that innovative operations can be carried out and new avenues – in line with the UK government’s Industrial Strategy – can be explored.
As Internet of Business explored in its report yesterday, the economic opportunities that drones offer the UK are potentially enormous. Let’s hope that the new laws have a light enough touch that encourages, rather than deters, innovation.