Drones: law in the UK

Some of the most innovative organisations in the world use drones to augment their business processes. All predictions are that the commercial and civil drone market will boom over the next decade.

This growth will be due in part to a large variety of uses for the technology, which include inspection services (of infrastructure, oil and gas rigs, solar farms, power plants, pylons, power lines and monuments), media, journalism, internet and telecommunication platforms, fire and rescue, policing, marketing, precision farming, crop dusting, fire detection, flood monitoring, pipeline security surveillance, geo-physical surveys and others.
This note explains the regulatory framework for flying drones in the UK in the context of EU and international regulations, including what permissions are needed, potential liabilities, data protection and privacy issues, among others.


Drone is used to describe unmanned flying aircraft often carrying data collection instruments such as cameras. Unmanned flying machines are variously known as Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones. However, increasingly the term "drone" is used more widely by industry, the public and regulators.
MTOM stands for Maximum Take Off Mass. This is an important measurement because many of the current regulations governing the use of drones distinguish between categories of drones according to weight. MTOM includes the weight of the drone's batteries.

Air regulations

Aviation safety regulation is broadly split into two categories:

• Airworthiness regulation (the certification of aircraft systems to ensure that the aircraft is safe to use).
• Operational regulation (the rules regarding pilot training, licensing and the use of air traffic management services).

Airspace is separated into classes (A to G) by international agreement (Convention on International Civil Aviation, 7 December 1944). Airspace class corresponds with the level of air traffic management service, types of aircraft operations and the minimum equipment and pilot competence required to fly in that class. For example, class A airspace is reserved for professional pilots flying sophisticated commercial aircraft with a full air traffic management service. Many small drone operations are restricted to class G airspace and to operating below 500ft above ground; this airspace is not formally segregated but is largely free of normal aircraft traffic.

UK regulatory developments

Following a consultation between July and December 2018, the government has set out its proposed next steps on policies for drone use and enforcement:

• The government proposes to publish a further Drones Bill during 2019. This is expected to introduce additional police powers to enable enforcement of existing and future drones regulation. The consultation response issued in early 2019 indicated that this will comprise powers to request information and evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed, to require a pilot to land a drone, and the option to issue fixed penalty notices for minor drone offences.
• Although suggested as a possible subject for a Drones Bill, current government policy is to give further consideration to proposals for Flight Information Notification Systems, a form of mandatory flight plans, perhaps as part of an unmanned traffic management system.
• The Drones Bill is also likely to establish a process to implement counter-drone measures: either the capability to identify errant drones or “effector” technology to take control of them. It seems clear that the UK government intends to introduce prescriptive regulation of this technology. The Home Office will expedite policy work to develop appropriate means of allowing the expanded use of counter-drone technology, in the light of concerns by respondents to the consultation about the impact of such technology on legitimate drone use. The Implementing Regulation and the Delegated Regulation do not address counter-drone technology.

From 13 March 2019, the Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2019 introduced additional 5 x 1 km flight restriction zones at the end of runways and increase the size of the existing circular aerodrome traffic zone around protected airports. The latter is designed to protect aircraft approaching from any direction. Drone pilots wishing to fly within those zones must have the permission of Air Traffic Control (a commercial organisation might need to fly a drone, for example, to examine property), the CAA or the aerodrome operator.

The UK has published secondary legislation paving the way for competency and registration requirements. These are designed to be consistent with the Implementing Regulation. The CAA must be in a position to accept applications by 1 October 2019 in order to have the required registration certificates and acknowledgements of competency in place by 30 November 2019.

There are also two private members' bills going through the legislative process. The Drone (Regulation) Bill 2017-19 is described on the parliamentary bills site as "a Bill to regulate the purchase and use of drones weighing 5 kilograms or more; and for connected purposes". The Drone (Regulation) (No. 2) Bill 2017-19 is described on the parliamentary bills site as "a Bill to require drones to be marked and registered and to broadcast certain information electronically; to place restrictions on drone flight near aerodromes; and for connected purposes".

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Reproduced from Practical Law with the permission of the publishers. For further information, visit www.practicallaw.com.

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