Drones—also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs)—have been the focus of significant media attention. Reports of drone sightings at Gatwick Airport in December 2018 caused significant disruption and highlighted the need for further recognition of the substantial rise in the purchase and use of commercial and civilian drones more widely.
The integration of drones into society carried substantial opportunities and risks that the Government must address. We heard that the Government had already taken some action to reduce the risks posed by drones, and had announced plans to introduce a Drones Bill in late 2019, but that much more was needed to ensure current drone users were not unfairly penalised, and that criminal drone users faced substantial punishments.
We recognise the importance of extending Flight Restriction Zones to five kilometres. However, these restriction zones are not clearly or consistently enforced. The lack of a standardised process results in inconsistent denials and permissions being granted to those applying. This is unacceptable. The Government should commission the production of a standardised and unified system through which drone operators can request access to Flight Restriction Zones.
Further, there is a compelling case for the Government to introduce a registration scheme to be able to identify all lawful operators and to ensure that there is a knowledge test for drone users. Flying a drone is a skill and therefore it is appropriate for there to be a test to make sure the operator is fit to operate a drone. The Government, or the appropriate regulatory body, such as the Civil Aviation Authority, should review the proposed online test one year after it has been in operation.
In addition to this, if the registration fee dissuades individuals from registering, then this defies the purpose of the system—to improve the safety of our airspace. The Government should conduct a review of the cost of the registration scheme. If the Government believes it is appropriate for the fee to remain at £16.50, then they should clearly set out their rationale for the cost and the renewal period should be three years rather than yearly.
We recommend that the Government consider a system which allows organised clubs and societies to register as one entity, so as not to financially burden each member. However, it must be mandatory for every individual user to adhere to the required safety standards.
Finally, in terms of the proposed registration system, the Government should acknowledge that the scheme will do little to mitigate the risks from nefarious drone users who will simply bypass registration and testing. We recommend a sliding scale of penalties for failure to register, starting with a warning, and culminating in a fine and a prison sentence.
We are concerned that the Government does not appear to have made any independent assessment of the potential economic benefits and opportunities that arise from the growing drone industry. To properly harness the benefits of drones the Government will need to analyse their potential economic contribution. The Government should provide an assessment of how the growing drone industry might contribute to the UK’s economy by the time of the 2020 Spring Statement.
Throughout the inquiry, we heard that drones can have a positive effect on society, including through medical delivery and emergency service provision. By utilising drones, emergency services can conduct missions that were previously unsafe or not possible, as well as being able to respond quicker to incidents. We are encouraged to see the Government has allowed exemptions for emergency services to use drones beyond the visual line of sight in their operations, however, this provision does not apply to other organisations (such as Mountain Rescue) who might be involved in emergency service-led rescue missions. The Civil Aviation Authority should make it possible for organisations which are used in emergency missions to apply for emergency service exemptions to the Air Navigation Order 2016.
In terms of the risks that drones pose, we are concerned that there are differing accounts within the aviation community about the likely severity of damage of a drone collision with an airplane. Furthermore, there are differing accounts of the number of near misses and the reliability of airprox reports has been disputed. The Committee is concerned that there is no agreed position on the likely consequences of a drone-airplane impact. The Government should complete a substantive risk assessment of the risks drones pose to manned commercial aircraft and publish the findings of this assessment by the end of 2020.
Further, we recommend the Government make the weaponisation of a drone a specific criminal offence within the upcoming Drones Bill and consider stringent penalties for those who take such action, such as those introduced in the USA. We also recommend that the Ministry of Defence make malicious drone use a top intelligence priority.
There is a notable distrust towards drones among the general public that needs addressing if the UK is to maximise the opportunities presented by drones. The Government should act to improve public perception and awareness of drones by launching a public awareness campaign, no later than Summer 2020, that highlights the opportunities presented by drones and informs the public on the reality of the risks posed by drones.
We heard that drone safety education was vital for the safe use of drone by recreational users. The Government should mandate that a copy of the Drone Code is provided with each drone sold in the UK. The Drone Code should also be publicised in common drone flying areas. This should be rolled out as quickly as possible and implemented in full no later than the end of April 2020.
There is no justifiable reason why a drone should not have in-built safety features as standard. The Government must ensure that all manufacturers include safety features, such as geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity as standard in their drones. Further, it should be a criminal offence to disable such features. Penalties for doing so should be set out clearly in the forthcoming Drones Bill. The Government should ensure all drones, including existing drones, are electronically conspicuous within two years.
We recognise that drone technology is moving at pace, carrying with it a multitude of opportunities and risks. The Government needs to act to ensure that it can stay ahead of the curve in the future. The Government should produce a White Paper by Summer 2020 that outlines the vision for how drones will be integrated into UK communities over the coming years.
Published: 11 October 2019