Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents


Drones in the UK

1.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. For example, 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. A February 2019 House of Commons Library briefing cited an estimation from the Civil Aviation Authority that British consumers purchased 530,000 drones in 2014 and that over the Christmas period in 2017, a further 1.5 million were anticipated to be sold.1 Further, a 2018 Report from Nesta, an innovation foundation based in the UK, explained that in August 2018 there were 4,530 operators with permission for commercial operation of drones in the UK.2 This number represented a massive increase on the last few years: in 2010 there were five commercial permissions for operation, 110 in 2013 and 1,769 in mid-2016.3 Drones can also include those that operate in water or on land, however, in this Report we have only focused on aerial drones and their integration into the airspace. When we refer to drones, we are referring to airborne drones.

2.All these factors therefore raised questions about the future use of drones and the opportunities and risks of such usage. Throughout this inquiry, we were told by many witnesses, including PwC, Thales, Nesta and the then Minister for Aviation, that the use of drones had many societal and economic benefits, and were currently being used in a number of different industries including:

We also heard that Amazon had already successfully trialled the use of drones to deliver goods in the UK in 2016, and that in America in 2020, drone taxis would be trialled for the first time.5 In a recent report from PwC, Skies without limits: Drones - taking the UK’s economy to new heights, they predicted that by 2030, 628,000 people would be working in the drone industry in the UK and this would have a £42 billion net positive impact on the economy.6

3.However, we were also told throughout the inquiry that drones might present a substantial risk to both safety and privacy as they were incorporated into our airspace. Captain Tim Pottage, representing the British Airline Pilots Association, told us that the risk of a drone colliding with an aircraft was “very real”, and could potentially cause fatalities if it collided with the windscreen of a plane.7 Further, according to the UK Airprox Board, near-misses between manned aircraft and drones rose from 71 incidents in 2016 to 125 in 2018.8 Just under 90% of all Airprox reports in 2018 were suspected drone incursions.9 We also heard from equally reputable groups that the reliability of Airprox reports and accounts of collision of a drone with an airliner are disputed, and this will be explored in further detail in paragraphs 72 to 74.10 Further to this, we also heard evidence from the Royal Aeronautical Society that 75% of the public were concerned about drones being used to spy on them at home, whilst our colleagues on the Defence Committee heard evidence for their ongoing inquiry, Domestic Threat of Drones, that drone technology could present a new opportunity for terrorist weaponry.11

4.The Department for Transport told us that “the Government has implemented legislation to ensure drones are used safely and responsibly, to help place the UK at the forefront of this fast-growing industry, whilst harnessing the benefits as this technology develops.”12 In 2018, the Government amended the 2016 Air Navigation Order 2016, which stated that a person must not recklessly endanger aircraft, to include new measures which:

a) prohibited drones from flying above 400 feet and restricted within one kilometre of a protected airport boundary; and

b) required all operators intending to fly drones over 250g to register and required all drone pilots intending to fly drones over 250g to complete a competency test—these measures will apply from November 2019.13

The Department for Transport further set out its plans to introduce a Drones Bill in the next Parliamentary Session which they told us would extend police powers to investigate reports of criminal and negligent drone use.14

What is a “drone”?

5.The term ‘drone’ is used as an alternative to ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ (UAV) or ‘Unmanned Aircraft’ (UA). As mentioned at paragraph 1, the term drone can also refer to other robotic machines that can be used in water or on land, but for the purposes of this Report, we only focus on UAVs/UAs. A 2019 House of Commons library briefing explained that a drone could be wide-ranging in size, from “small hand-held types up to large aircraft” and could either be “piloted or autonomous, although the latter are at an early stage of development”.15

6.The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the chief independent statutory body responsible for the regulation of drones, elaborated on this definition and has implemented a number of regulations that govern drone use in the UK and by extension define a drone.16

7.A recreational drone is defined by the CAA as “any unmanned aircraft, other than a balloon or a kite, having a mass of not more than 20kg without its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight.”17 They further stipulated that a drone user should abide by the following guidance:

8.If a drone user wishes to operate outside the limits as set by these restrictions, they must be granted commercial operating permission by the CAA. This permission involves demonstration of remote pilot competence and a sufficient understanding of aviation theory, as well as completion of a practical flight examination and preparation of an Operations Manual.19 The CAA approves commercial organisations, known as National Qualified Entities (NQEs) to do this assessment on their behalf.20 This will be explored in further detail in Chapter 5.

9.The British Model Flying Association told us that the legal definition of a drone now encompasses model aircraft, and as such, any resulting legislative changes or regulations will impact upon both model aircraft and colloquially understood “drones”.21

Our inquiry

10.In light of the high profile and increasing relevance of airborne drone use in the UK, we decided to launch an inquiry to assess the success of the actions that the Government has taken to enable the opportunities from drones to be harnessed while mitigating the associated risks. The Defence Committee was also conducting an inquiry into the Domestic Threat of Drones, which looked specifically at drones in the UK from a defence and security perspective. For this reason, we decided to conduct our first evidence session jointly with the Defence Committee but conducted separate inquiries and are producing separate Reports.

11.We launched a call for written submissions in March 2019. We sought submissions that addressed the following terms of reference:

12.We received over 180 pieces of written submissions from a variety of sources, including drone users, the Government, technology manufacturers, aeronautical societies and organisations and emergency services. The evidence we have received is available on our website.23

13.We also visited the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial University to hear about the usage of drones for digital infrastructure systems, including diagnostics and repairs, both in the air and under water. A summary note of this visit is at Annex 1. In addition to this, we held a roundtable event with recreational and commercial drone users, where we heard their perspectives on drone regulation and registration, a summary of these discussions at Annex 2. We had been hoping to also visit Surrey Search and Rescue to learn more about the use of drones in emergency services, however, Parliamentary business meant we were unable to find a suitable date to conduct such a visit. To further assist with our inquiry, we appointed Dr Anna Jackman, lecturer in Political Geography at Royal Holloway University, as a Specialist Adviser for this inquiry.24 We are grateful to all those who contributed to our inquiry.

Aims of this Report

14.In this Report we make recommendations relating to what the Government, mainly the Department for Transport, should do to regulate drones in the future and to maximise the opportunities they offer and minimise any risks. We recognise that some issues may equally apply to land and sea drones, but we are focusing solely on recommendations for UAVs. In addition, we make a small number of recommendations directed at the Civil Aviation Authority. Specifically:

1 “Civilian Drones”, Briefing paper CBP 7734, House of Commons Library, February 2019

2 Duffy, R, “Mapping the UK drone industry”, Nesta, September 2018

3 Ibid

8 UK Airprox Board, “Analysis of Airprox in UK Airspace”, Report Number 34, (January 2018 to December 2018) and UK Airprox Board, “Analysis of Airprox in UK Airspace”, Report Number 32, (January 2016 to December 2016)

9 UK Airprox Board, “Analysis of Airprox in UK Airspace”, Report Number 34, (January 2018 to December 2018)

10 Flight Safety Board (RDU0107) para 13; British Model Flying Association, Scottish Aeromodellers Association, First Person View UK, and the Large Model Association (RDU0192) para 3–9

11 Royal Aeronautical Society (RDU0086)

12 Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 28

13 Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 30

14 Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 34

15 “Civilian Drones”, Briefing paper CBP 7734, House of Commons Library, February 2019, p 4

16 The Air Navigation (Amendment) Order 2019 No. 261

17 Ibid.

18 Drone safe, “The Drone Code”, accessed 3 October 2019

20 Ibid.

21 British Model Flying Association (RDU0082) para 2

22MPs set to investigate the risks of drones”, Commons Select Committees, (March 2019)

23Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK inquiry - publications”, Science and Technology Committee, accessed 3 October 2019

24 Dr Anna Jackman declared her interests on Tuesday 21 May

Published: 11 October 2019