How Will the UK Government’s ‘Get Tough’ Approach Impact Drone Flight?

Drone near miss prompts discussions

Following the drone disruption at Gatwick and Heathrow airport the no-fly zone surrounding airports has been extended from 1km to 5km.  

The UK Government has decided tighten up drone regulations in response to two serious drone-related incidents in December and January, which saw two of the UK’s busiest airports temporarily shutdown and caused massive disruption to travellers.

Today, it announced that as of the 13th of March it will be illegal to fly a drone within three miles of an airport. The Government also said it wants to grant police new stop and search powers to tackle illegal drone use. These new powers will also include matters related to items including SIM cards and drone controllers.

Following the new legislation, the police will have the power to land drones and demand that pilots provide proper documentation. Provided a serious crime has been committed, officers will also be able to search premises and seize drones – including any electronic data stored on the device.

Related: Tougher UK Drone Laws to Prevent Future Travel Chaos

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling says: “The law is clear that flying a drone near an airport is a serious criminal act. We’re now going further and extending the no-fly zone to help keep our airports secure and our skies safe.

“Anyone flying their drone within the vicinity of an airport should know they are not only acting irresponsibly, but criminally, and could face imprisonment.”

Home Secretary Sajid Javid comments: “Extending stop and search to include drones will help police tackle disruption like the recent misery we saw at UK airports, when travel was ruined for thousands of innocent passengers, and bring those responsible to justice.

“Police are clear that stop and search is one of the most powerful tools they have to target and disrupt crime and I remain committed to giving them all the support they need to protect the public.”

The Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (Arpas UK), which represents the drone industry, welcomed the wider no-fly zone but cautioned on the stop-and-search plans.

“Police will need to know exactly what the rules are and in exercising their powers do so in the right way,” said Rupert Dent, an Arpas UK committee member.

“We are keen it doesn’t prevent legitimate operators from operating drones in a legitimate fashion.

“We are also pleased about the focus on education and believe it compliments the activities of the Drone training organisations (NQEs) and our members who spend time providing education to schools and the public,” he adds.

Recommended: UK Public Declare Drones a National Risk

Founder of Women Who Drone, Elena Buenrostro, tells DIGIT: “We believe the implementation of restricting drones 5km away from airports is best practice to avoid any collisions with manned aircraft.

“However, pilots who fly drones professionally, and who are following the rules, should be given this option (to fly within the 5km restriction zone) if indeed they need to perform let’s say a building or bridge inspection near an airport.

“Everyone with a drone is not an enemy. There are Certified pilots who do this for a living to make things more efficient for the world and this should be considered when implementing any drone restriction.”

According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who has also welcomed the move, those who need to fly in the restricted zone for legitimate purposes will be able to apply for a permit to do so.

Rosie Ellison, head of Film Edinburgh, who is chiefly responsible for processing and granting commercial drone permissions to fly in the capital city, tells DIGIT: “The extension of the no-fly zone around airports shows that the UK Government recognises both the increasing importance of drones for commercial use and the need for regulation for public safety.

“The airport extension will come as no surprise, and will be welcomed by operators who adhere very closely to CAA regulations and are fully conscious of the need for public safety.

“But the challenges are two-fold: firstly, the need to raise awareness among the general public, not only of the airport no-fly zone but of general drone-safety guidelines; and secondly, the enforcement of drone legislation.”

Related: Gatwick Drones Cause Christmas Commute Chaos

Separately, the Government is preparing to announce a new partnership with high-street photography and video shop, Jessops, to promote awareness about the need to fly drones safely.

To do this the shop will take all its drone customers through the ‘drone code of conduct’ and provide them with a leaflet explaining the new laws. Online customers will have to read a web page detailing the same information.

Ian Savage, head of learning and development at Jessops, told Sky News: “We have the opportunity to talk to our customers before they purchase, not only about the product but also about the drone code as well and how to fly them safely.

“Along with the pleasure drones bring, comes a responsibility for the user to make sure they are flying them safely and legally.”

In addition to the new legislation, the Home Office is also reviewing the Government’s drone countermeasures following the security incidents. The Government says it is testing new technologies to stop drone pilots from interfering with airport runways and other parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure.

In the aftermath of the disruption, both Gatwick and Heathrow have invested significantly in their own anti-drone technology, which for safety reasons they cannot reveal.

The previous week, drone maker DJI announced it was going to upgrade its geo-fencing technology to further protect aircraft. The revamped system, GEO 2.0, will change the pattern of the flight exclusion from a circular pattern to a new bow-tie pattern, covering a wider area.

However, DJI does have the option to ‘opt-out of geo-fencing’ but that is only permitted to certain operators, who are tracked by the Chinese company. But the fact this option is available suggests that those with drone knowledge could, in theory, hack the device and disable this safety feature.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the new rules and drone regulation awareness, Martin Sloan, partner at Brodies LLP tells DIGIT: “Malicious drone usage is very difficult to stop. If someone is intent on causing disruption at an airport then it appears that exclusion zones have little effect.

“The other issue is the sanctions. While the Secretary of State for Transport said that the individuals behind the Gatwick attack should face the ‘maximum possible custodial sentence for the damage they have done’, the reality is that the punishment for most offences under the ANO is a fine. Custodial sentences only apply where an individual recklessly or negligently acts in a manner ‘likely’ to endanger an aircraft or person in an aircraft.

“The proposed new stop and search powers under the Drones Bill will give the police the right to request a warrant to access electronic data stored on drones. It’s unclear whether this would be for the purposes of inspecting any logs that track a drone’s flying history or whether it would allow the police to access other content, such as video and photographic images. The latter may prove particularly controversial.

“In the long term, the most effective way to manage malicious use will be through the use of effective geofencing – something that the industry is already working on. But there are thousands of drones out there already that won’t have those controls built in.”

As it stands, it would seem that drone technology and the potential for misuse is developing faster than legislative and regulatory bodies can respond. While there are concerns that stronger regulations could stunt the benefit of drones to the economy, it appears that it is not commercial operators who pose the greatest risk to the public.

Already, licensed commercial operators are held to a much higher standard than hobbyists. This new legislation seems to be targeted at those who chose to flout the law; criminals, irresponsible drone users and those claiming to be ignorant of the regulations.



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