Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents

2Current regulations

15.This Chapter outlines the current state of play with regard to the legal requirements underpinning drones in the UK and the efficacy of the future regulations announced by the Government.

Current legislation

16.Relevant legislation concerning the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and aerospace more generally is contained primarily in the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Air Navigation Order 2016, as amended in 2018.25 Detailed guidance is also set out in the Civil Aviation Authority’s Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace.26 The Civil Aviation Authority is the independent statutory authority responsible for regulating civil aircraft, including drones. With regard to drones, the CAA said its aim was to “enable the full and safe integration of all Unmanned Aerial Systems, or Drones, into the UK’s total aviation system”.27

Flight Restriction Zones

17.The 2019 amendment to the 2016 Air Navigation Order (ANO) extended the Flight Restriction Zone around protected airports from 1km to 5km. Flight Restriction Zones refer to areas where drones are not permitted to enter without specific authorisation from the Civil Aviation Authority. The new extended Flight Restriction Zone consisted of:

  1. The Aerodrome Traffic Zone: a 2 or 2.5 nautical mile radius ‘cylinder’ around the aerodrome, extending 2,000 feet above ground level, centred on the longest runway.
  2. Runway Protection Zones: A rectangle extending 5km from the threshold of the runway away from the aerodrome, along the extended runway centreline, and 500 metres either side, also to a height of 2,000 feet above ground level.28

Source: P19 – Civil Aviation Authority, “Airspace restrictions for unmanned aircraft and drones”, accessed 9/10/2019

18.We heard mixed evidence regarding the efficacy of these zones. Captain Tim Pottage, representing the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), said:

The flight restriction zone is adequate as it is. It was not previously. The previous 1 km was woefully inadequate; 5 km is the bare minimum to keep aircraft and drones separated during their landing and take-off phases.29

In addition to this, drone user, Brian Galbraith, told us he believed that the restrictions were fair.30

19.However, evidence submitted by Liverpool John Moores University explained that the exact requirements of these zones was poorly communicated and unclear:

The latest set of changes to the Flight Restrictions Zones (FRZs) at airports was communicated extremely poorly with vague phrases such as “ … either two or two and a half nautical miles, or five kilometres … ” being used.31

20.Further, the Committee received evidence that the system for requesting access to Flight Restriction Zones took a long and varied amount of time. For example, Gorilla Drones, a commercial drone operator, told us that the current system for requesting access was “not a workable solution” for commercial drone operators as some application processes could take as long as 21 working days, and different aerodromes implemented the restrictions differently, leading to an inconsistent and inaccessible service.32 Similarly, Mr Arron Banfield claimed that airport requirements for 3–4 weeks advanced notice was “unworkable.”33 During the recreational and commercial drone user roundtable (see Annex 2), some participants told us that the permissions access system was disruptive to hobbyist drone users, who were now bound by restrictions that meant they were not able to pursue their hobby as flexibly as before.

21.We were also told during the roundtable that aerodromes had inconsistent reasonings for acceptance or denial, and for imposing charges that varied according to operator. Mekdem Ltd, a small unmanned aircraft commercial operator, explained that the implementation of flight restriction zones had hampered business for small commercial operators as “many airport operators have now started to charge drone owners for requesting clearance to fly within the 5km zone”.34 DB Training Solutions Ltd, a drone training consultancy company, stated that “unfortunately of recent times, some airport ATC’s [Air Traffic Control] have taken it upon themselves to impose caveats, restrictions and even refusals for drone flights within their zone”.35 Sky Held Cameras, a commercial drone operator, also told us that a number of Air Traffic Control providers “have either given blanket denials or imposed charges for such permission.”36

22.The Committee received evidence from the National Air Traffic System (NATS), a major service for the provision of a safe airspace, on its app the ‘Airspace User’s Portal’ which it has developed to help deal with the issue of requesting access to Flight Restriction Zones:

We have made the step of implementing what we have called the airspace user portal, which provides the public and commercial operators with a single place through which permission can be granted. We can then forward requests to the appropriate authorities that have the permission. That delivers a consistent means of access to the public […] As well as giving consistent means of access to the public, it means that, when disruption occurs, the airport and the police are much better placed to undertake an assessment of the risk and to identify those who are acting responsibly, because they have some knowledge of who is meant to be flying there at the same time.37

23.When we asked the then Minister what action the Government was taking to make the permissions system more consistent, she told us that it was difficult to create a unified system for permissions due to the different needs of different aerodromes, and local regulations and restrictions: “flight restriction zones could be at Heathrow airport or an airport that has five flights a day, so we have different elements. It is up to the local air traffic control unit to provide permission”.38 However, the then Minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, also told us that the Government did recognise that this was an issue and explained that the CAA was currently working to review all permissions granted, to improve the system to request access.39

24.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.

25.The Government should commission the production of a standardised and unified system through which drone operators can request access to Flight Restriction Zones. This could be achieved by working with National Air Traffic Services on its development of an Airspace User’s Portal. This should be completed no later than summer 2020.

Agreed forthcoming regulations

Drones Bill

26.In January 2019 the Government published its response to its consultation on the Drones Bill that it intends to bring forward in November 2019. Possible content of a Drones Bill, as outlined in Taking Flight: the future of Drones in the UK: Government response, is covered in the paragraphs that follow.

Police powers relating to drones:

27.The Government proposed the following action with regard to increasing police powers relating to drones:

  • Require the production of evidence in specific circumstances for: drone operator registration, remote pilot acknowledgement of competency; and other requirements for specific flights (such as permission for commercial drone use or exemptions from the Civil Aviation Authority from any Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2016 articles; and
  • Obtain information such as the names and addresses of a registered drone operator and/or remote pilot believed to be in charge of the drone in specific circumstances (such as where there is suspicion of a reasonable offence).40
  • Registration fee and online test

    28.From the end of November 2019, it will be a legal requirement for operators of drones weighing more than 250 grams to register and pass an online test.41 After a CAA consultation in 2018 on the registration charge, the annual fee was set at £16.50 per individual user, but the online test would be free. The then Minister for Aviation told us that the purpose of registration was to improve the safety of the public and the airspace, in line with other measures such as electronic conspicuity (mentioned in more detail at paragraph 120):

    [These things together] will go a long way to making sure that our lower airspace is safer and that the public feel it is safer, rather than just thinking, “I don’t want a random object flying down my street and nobody knows what it is and where it is coming from. It might be a bit noisy. Quite frankly, it is going to my neighbour’s house and not to me. I don’t like it.” The safety element is critical.42

    29.We received evidence that was widely supportive of a registration scheme. The Airport Operators Association, for example, explained that “a compulsory registration regime for drone operators […] is an effective measure which increases safety”.43 The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) compared drones to cars and guns: “in the same way that vehicles and guns have to be identifiable and registered so should be the case with drones which are capable of significant harm.”44 Notably, Dr Stephen Wright, at the University of the West of England, argued that “limited legislation (e.g. registration) is generally welcomed by the skilled community” and this was supported by drone user Mr Michael Clarke who stated that “this sounds like an excellent scheme and one which I wholly endorse”.45

    30.Drone users were also widely supportive of the proposed registration scheme. Mr David Laverik, for example, told us “I would support a system of registration of drones and their users and a requirement for drone pilots to pass some test of competency”.46 Further, Mr Jonathan Ridgway told us he viewed the necessity of registering a drone as no different to being registered on the DVLA database for car use.47 These views were also echoed in the roundtable event we held with recreational and commercial drone users (Annex 2).

    31.We also received evidence in support of the online test that would accompany the registration scheme. Drone user Martin Hall told us that he was supportive of the idea of an online test, as did Richard Parker from Altitude Angel.48 However, during the roundtable event (see Annex 2), those who had been asked to pilot the test raised concerns that it might be too easy to pass as most of the answers could be easily found online and others critiqued the small number of questions that formed the test. Further, during the roundtable, many raised concerns that it was unfair for commercial drone users to be required to take the online test and pay the registration fee, as they were already subject to rigorous tests in order to commercially operate their drone.

    32.There is a compelling case that the Government should 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.

    33.The Government, or the appropriate regulatory body, such as the Civil Aviation Authority, should review the online test one year after it has been in operation. Specifically, the Government should determine if it is an adequate test for ensuring safe drone use.

    34.We heard further protestation from the drone user community about the cost of registration. Brendan Schulman representing DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer, told us:

    My understanding is that the proposal or suggestion is over £16. That is more than 12 times the cost of registration in the United States. Frankly, I do not understand why it would cost so much, and I worry that everything that follows from registrations–things such as remote ID and UTM–will be subject to a negative impact if that cost is too high.49

    35.This perspective was also shared by some who attended our roundtable event (see Annex 2). For example, our attention was drawn to the French system of drone registration, which is free and involved a more rigorous test. Some went on to explain that the UK’s proposed scheme would not tackle the problem of nefarious drone use, as only those who intended to be compliant would register, and authorities were unlikely to be able to track down those who did not. Mr Christopher Llewellyn explained that the lack of detail provided by the Government about how the registration scheme would work meant people were less likely to register their drones, as “the longer this goes on the more likelihood that people will ignore it, as they will not have a reasonable time to register, and then perhaps not bother at all”.50

    36.In the CAA response to the Government consultation on registration, they set out the rationale for the registration fee:

    This is to cover the costs of running the registration scheme, which includes the IT hosting and security costs, CAA personnel and helpdesk, identity verification, a national education and awareness campaign and costs of further upgrades to the initial drone registration service. We have based our costs on an assumption of 170,000 assumed registrations over the initial 18-month period, though we would welcome through this consultation any additional information about the numbers of drone and model aircraft users. We will review the drone registration charge after its introduction and implement any changes from April 2021, including whether a three year rather than annual renewal period is more appropriate.51

    37.Further, the then Minister told us that she thought the proposed fee of £16.50 was a “very reasonable sum” and that the registration system would “improve the safety of our airspace, not just for model aircraft but for everybody flying any sort of aircraft in the sky”.52

    38.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.

    39.Further, we also received some evidence that questioned the registration fee, particularly in its application to the model flying community. David Phipps, representing the British Model Flying Association, noted that “there is also the danger that it may drive some activity out of organised associations or communities if the fees and bureaucratic requirements are set too high.”53 This particular point was also made in written evidence from the British Model Flying Association who argued that their hobby had gone undisturbed for many years, but they were now technically classified as “Unmanned Aviation Vehicle” users and as such were subject to excess fees.54 In the drone roundtable event (Annex 2), some advocated that those who operated model aircraft as part of a club should be exempted from registration and societies and clubs should be able to register as one entity.

    40.Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK Government Response, published in 2019, stated:

    The Government will continue working with model aircraft associations to discuss the possibility of future exemptions. We are keen to minimise, if possible, the burden on those members of model aircraft associations who are already registered through a club and have already passed certain competency tests. However, this must be achieved without imposing undue burden on the state and the taxpayer, whilst also being efficient and enforceable, without compromising the integrity of the policy. A blanket exemption from registration and competency tests, as suggested in many of the consultation responses submitted by model fliers, will not meet these criteria.55

    Further to this, the then Minister told us:

    I say to the model aircraft associations that I absolutely respect their position as people who care deeply about safety, and the safety of our airspace. Therefore, if that is the case, why would they not wholeheartedly support a registration system that we feel would improve the safety of our airspace, not just for model aircraft but for everybody flying any sort of aircraft in the sky?56

    41.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. The Government should set out in response to this Report whether this should be demonstrated by the completion of an online test or an obligation on clubs to ensure their members have appropriate safety standards.

    Enforcing registration

    42.Some individuals told us that they were concerned about how the Government would police the registration system. Stephen Ogborne, a drone user, explained that criminals would not register their drones, and only “law abiding citizens” will, which meant that registration would not help law enforcement to track down rogue, terrorist or criminal drone use.57 This perspective was shared by Melvyn Bond, amongst others.58 This view was also shared by Blue Dot UAV Imaging, a commercial drone company, and Blighter Surveillance Systems Ltd., a counter UAV company, who argued that while law-abiding drone operators would register previous drones, those wishing to act illegally would not.59

    43.Melvyn Bond, also pointed out that it would be very difficult for the Government to ensure that those who had drones before the registration system came into force, had registered previously purchased drones.60

    44.Tim Johnson, representing the CAA, acknowledged that the registration scheme would not be effective against criminal drone use:

    The purpose of the registration scheme is to educate and register those who operate lawfully. We are designing it in such a way as to make it as easy as possible for people to access and use and take the online test, but it is for those who are aware of it and choose to operate lawfully.61

    45.However, Professor Dunn from the University of Birmingham explained that registration should be heavily enforced, and a policy of deterrence, in the form of strict penalties for drone use, was the best way to decrease drone criminality.62 The then Minister also told us that there would be strict fixed penalty notices or “serious” action taken for those who ignore registration.63

    46.The Government should acknowledge that the proposed registration scheme will do little to mitigate the risks from nefarious drone users who will simply bypass registration and testing. Penalties for those who avoid registration should be set out clearly in the forthcoming Drones Bill. We recommend a sliding scale of penalties for failure to register, starting with a warning, and culminating in a fine and a prison sentence.

    26 Civil Aviation Authority, “Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace – Guidance & Policy”, CAP 722, May 2019

    27 Civil Aviation Authority, “An introduction to unmanned aircraft systems”, accessed 3 October 2019

    28 The Civil Aviation Authority, “Airspace restrictions for unmanned aircraft and drones”, accessed 3 October 2019

    30 Brian Galbraith (RDU0093) para 2

    31 Liverpool John Moores University (RDU0079) p 2

    32 Gorilla Drones (RDU0094) p 3

    33 Arron Banfield (RDU0138) p 10

    34 Mekdem LTD (RDU0159) p 1

    35 DB Training Solutions Ltd (RDU0033)

    36 SkyHeld Cameras (RDU0161) p 2

    40 Department for Transport, “Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK Government Response” January 2019, para 3.2

    41 Ibid, para 1.21

    43 Airport Operators Association (RDU0076) para 9

    44 BALPA (RDU0121) p 5

    45 University of the West of England (RDU0029) para 8.6, Mr Michael Clarke (RDU0049) p 6

    46 Mr David Laverick (RDU0027) p 1

    47 Mr Jonathan Ridgeway (RDU0028) para 11

    48 Martin Hall (RDU0035) p 2; Q19

    50 Mr Christopher Llewellyn (RDU0008) p 4

    51 Civil Aviation Authority, “2019 Drone Registration Scheme: Charge Proposal Consultation Document”, April 2019, para 1.6

    54 British Model Flying Association (RDU0082), para 2

    55 Department for Transport, “Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK Government Response” January 2019, para 2.29

    57 Stephen Ogborne (RDU0012) para 6

    58 Melvyn Bond (RDU0024) para 4; Mr Bernhart Dambacher (RDU0021)

    59 Blue Dot UAV Imaging (RDU0129); Blighter Surveillance Systems Ltd. (RDU0132) para 2.6

    60 Melvyn Bond (RDU0024) para 4.4

    Published: 11 October 2019