Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents


47.This Chapter outlines the evidence relating to the potential economic, social and humanitarian opportunities presented by the growing drone industry. This Chapter outlines the regulatory changes and technological advancements required to enable to the UK to benefit from these potential opportunities.

Hobbyist drone operators

48.Throughout our inquiry, we heard much evidence from the recreational drone user community who told us that drones had given communities a fun and rewarding hobby. For example, Mr Peter Hague, a drone user, told us that recreational drone use had enabled him to advance his skill and interest in photography:

The recreational side of drone flying also has […] a great increased opportunity for social benefit as this is a new hobby attracting many people who previously had no real interest in photography or videography, as the images from just a hundred or so feet are fundamentally different and attractive.64

William Legge, another drone user, also referenced the sense of “community” that recreational drone users had, and this point was echoed by Mr Martin Cocking and Mr Fraser Steen, who explained that “model aviation is a fantastic community with a deep history”.65

49.Further, Melvyn Bond told us that drone racing was a “popular hobby”.66 Member of the public, Arron Banfield, also told us that BT Sport had already begun to invest in a drone racing series.67 We learned that there were several drone racing events across the UK that competitors could take part in, such as the UK Drone Racing Open International World Cup Event and the Westland Drone Racing event, amongst many others.68

50.However, we were also told that the potential risks of the hobbyist drone user community needed to be considered. For example, Professor David Dunn and Dr Christopher Wyatt from the University of Birmingham told us about the dangers of what they referred to as “blunderers”—ill-informed recreational drone users who inadvertently caused accidents by not being properly educated or taking tests to ensure that they operated their drones safely.69 They explained that this was because drone safety education in the UK was not adequate:

Someone buying a drone may not know that there are rules and may not know to look on the CAA website or look up the Drone Code online. There are leaflets in COTS drones bought in the UK but, at that point, the purchaser gets the information only after they have bought the drone.70

Others, such as Dr Stephen Wright and drone user, Mr Geoffrey Hirst, also told us that there was a proportion of the recreational drone community who were reckless, whether inadvertently or not.71 However, Mr Hirst pointed out, that many other hobbies also involved individuals who might carelessly or cluelessly disobey the law or act dangerously, such as those who drove cars.72

51.However, the then Minister told us that drone safety and the education of drone users was a priority for the Government, the then Minister told us that she understood that model flying was a “very long-standing traditional hobby” and she viewed the “vast majority of all unmanned aircraft users to have a good safety record”.73 This view was backed up by National Air Traffic System (NATS) who explained that:

NATS fully acknowledge that the vast majority of drone pilots act completely responsibly and safely […] At NATS we work closely with the drone pilot community and value their input enormously–input which is helping us to ensure they have the best and safest experience they can when flying. We do not want the many to be tarnished by the misdeeds of the few.74

52.It is vital that the Government respects recreational drone use and model flying communities and ensures that any further regulation or legislation does not dissuade people from joining such communities.

Economic opportunities

53.The Committee received a significant amount of evidence relating to the economic opportunities presented by the growing drone industry. In a 2019 Report from PwC, Skies without limits: Drones—taking the UK’s economy to new heights, PwC performed a comprehensive analysis of the economic effects of the development of the drone industry.They stated that:

Our study into the impact of drones shows that, by 2030, there could be: £42 billion increase in UK gross domestic product (GDP); £16 billion in net cost savings to the UK economy; 76,000 drones operating in the UK’s skies and 628,000 jobs in the drone’s economy.75

54.The University of Birmingham also shared this view about the positive effect drones could have on the UK economy: “the use of unmanned systems will change the way that many industries will operate. Logistics, delivery, surveying, repairs and maintenance are just some of the areas where unmanned technologies will be game changing.”76 Nesta explained that in addition to the applications of drones in “media, construction, real-estate, agriculture, search and rescue and more”, there were also emerging services that support the drone industry including “insurance, training, maintenance and drone strategy consulting”; supporting technology including “data analytics, data management, sensors and subsystems” and furthermore, technology to support integration “including flight planning and management, as well as counter drone systems.”77 This view was also shared by many members of the public, such as Mr Christopher Llewelyn and Mr Andy Dubreuil amongst others.78

55.However, we also heard concerns that as drones increasingly replaced roles currently undertaken by humans, people might lose their jobs and businesses would be affected. Martin Hall told us that the “one hour delivery” prediction of Amazon would lead to “a faster decline in the British high street and an even bigger stranglehold by the multi-national co-operations” and could further see “home-delivery drivers out of work”.79 A 2016 report from PwC, Clarity from above, predicted that drones could replace $127 billion worth of human labour globally.80 These concerns were echoed by the University of Exeter, who explained that some within policing were concerned that the use of drones for law enforcement could cause a loss of jobs.81

56.However, Sean Cassidy, the Director of Safety and Regulatory Affairs at Amazon, explained that Amazon was using automation programmes, such as through its use of drones, to grow the economy and create more jobs:

In the United Kingdom over the last decade, we have invested something in the order of £9.3 billion in the economy here and created over 27,000 jobs. That is a good example of how automation and economic growth work hand in hand.82

Furthermore, Elaine Whyte from PwC told us that the increased use of commercial drones in the UK would lead to the creation of highly skilled jobs, and the skills would be needed to analyse and use the data that drones were able to collect:

I am much more interested in the relevance of the data going back to my client’s business. It is much more about business understanding and the human insight you get from the business understanding that integrates that technology back into the business.83

As such, PwC saw drones as a means of creating a new profession of data analysis for humans.

57.In addition, Professor David Dunn and Dr Christopher Wyatt from the University of Birmingham told us that although it was important to recognise the economic benefits of the growing drone industry, it was also important for this growth to happen in an “orderly and well-regulated way” as the “the perception should be avoided that the sector is being grown regardless of safety and the potential cost in lives”.84 The Security Institute also argued that though the economic benefits of drones were important, regulation had a vital role to play in ensuring that it was done safely and beneficially. They explained:

Regulators need to achieve the right balance between allowing the nascent industry to develop at a pace for commercial and leisure applications, and ensuring adequate levels of privacy, safety and security.85

The then Minister for Aviation, Baroness Vere, told us that the Civil Aviation Authority was responsible for looking at the regulatory and innovative environment, whilst the Department for Transport had a team that were looking to see if the suggested regulations were appropriate.86 One example flagged to us of changing regulations was in the use of drones for crop spraying. Throughout the inquiry, we heard that drones had been often used for data analysis and surveillance within agriculture, and recently the CAA granted permission to “Crop Angel”—an agricultural company based in Norfolk—to trial the spraying of wheat crops via drone. Though it remains illegal for drones to drop many agrochemicals, founder of Crop Angel and farmer Chris Eglington told a local newspaper that the success of this trial had demonstrated how this technology could be further applied.87 The issue of future regulations will be looked at in due course (Chapter 7).

58.In particular, much of the evidence that the Committee received with regard to the economic opportunities presented by drones related to parcel delivery. Aaron Banfield, a commercial drone user, set out the societal benefits of drone deliveries including:

With regard to the impact of drones on decarbonisation, Amazon explained, in its blog, that “Prime Air is one of many sustainability initiatives to help achieve Shipment Zero, the company’s vision to make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030.”89 Mr Shaun Madill, a member of the public, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and others also pointed to the reduction in carbon emissions that could be achieved as a result of increased drone deliveries .90

59.Amazon representative Sean Cassidy was asked on what timescale Amazon Prime Air was expected to be a delivery option for Amazon customers. He responded, “I am very confident that we will be doing something within the next five years.”91 The then Aviation Minister also told us that she had expected amazon delivery via drone to begin within the next five years. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has also acknowledged the benefits of parcel delivery, working with Amazon in their “innovation sandbox”92 to develop a “future delivery system from Amazon designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles”.93

60.We also heard some evidence that raised concerns about drone delivery. For example, member of the public and recreational drone user William Legge explained that he was concerned that deliveries might not be safe, as many houses lacked gardens and as such deliveries could block roads.94 Furthermore, Nesta told us that 44% of the 2,000 respondents to its survey on drones in cities, who were recruited online and paid to participate, were opposed or strongly opposed to drone use for parcel delivery.95 In a further survey undertaken in the US by the United States Postal Service, it found that while 44% of 1,465 respondents liked the idea of drone delivery, 23% neither liked nor disliked it and a further 34% disliked it.96 Further, the Department for Transport’s Public Dialogue on Drone Use in the UK explained that while the public were less concerned about the safety risks posed by commercial users, the public did have “concerns about the pace of current development of the commercial sector and the future trajectory of drones.”97

61.We also heard evidence regarding human transportation via drone, or “drone taxis”. Julia Jiggins, representing Thales, was asked about human transportation via drone, she told us that:

A trial in the United States is meant to be starting next year, taking people from the airport to downtown New York, on a dedicated route with a certain duration. It is not fully flexible—it is not able to go just anywhere—but the technology is there.98

Dr Mirko Kovac, from Imperial College, explained during our visit, as set out at Annex 1, that human transportation via drones would certainly occur during the next 10 years and he stated that he believed journeys such as Manchester to London would be possible within this timeframe. We also heard that a company called Skyports had begun exploring how to install “vertiports”—facilities for aircraft that take off and land vertically—on London rooftops so that drones deliveries could land easily once the regulatory environment allowed.99

62.The then Minister for Aviation told us that there was ongoing work in this area to create the right sort of regulatory and innovative environment to ensure that society could take full advantage of these technologies: “all of it is ongoing. Obviously, further work is going on in the DfT as well in the drones’ team as to how all of this is going to interact. Deliveries are not immediately imminent in this country.”100

63.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. This should focus on the regulatory requirements and the technological advancements required for innovations, such as parcel delivery and human transportation. Further, it should investigate the potential environmental impact of these innovations and in particular the potential for commercial drone use to contribute to decarbonisation of the economy. It should then set out a strategy and a timeframe required for any actions it wishes to take and should publish its findings no later than Autumn 2020.

Humanitarian and emergency service provision

64.The Committee received evidence relating to the capacity for drones to be used for social good within a humanitarian context. Evidence set out how drones were already being used by the emergency services and the capacity for drones to be used in the field of medical delivery—including blood and organs. In particular, the use of drones to deliver blood in Africa and the developing world was made by Elaine Whyte, PwC and Sean Cassidy, Amazon.101

65.Further, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset Police noted that drones could be used to support emergency services, such as police actions in a number of ways: to “provide an overview to make better tactical decisions […] to provide information without putting officers in harm’s way or without provoking a reaction from a subject.”102 Special Sergeant Kevin Taylor outlined the work of Lincolnshire Police’s Drone Unit:

Our drone unit has been active for 20 months. In that time, we have done more than 450 deployments. Without a shadow of a doubt, people are alive today who would not have been alive if it was not for the drone in Lincolnshire.103

66.Similarly, Surrey Search and Rescue set out how it used drones “to support all areas of [their] work” including “to search dangerous or inaccessible areas” and to provide “situational awareness at large fires.”104 With regard to medical delivery and drones within the NHS, Tris Dyson at Nesta stated: “Quite a lot of that currently relies on couriers on motorcycles or blue-light vehicles going through busy traffic areas, and it could make a difference to people’s life expectancy.”105 When questioned on the timescale of this development, Tris Dyson explained that due to “current limitations” they were currently unable to use drones in this way, however, “if you could fly Amazon parcels around London, you would be able to do the same thing, more or less.”106 He further added that allowing these drone operators to fly beyond visual line of sight would further enhance the successful implementation of drones in emergency service operations, “the transformation that can happen is when they are able to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and get there ahead of the emergency services.”107 He, alongside Julia Jiggins representing Thales UK, explained that BVLOS technology was available and being utilised in other countries such as Finland, Switzerland, Austria and the US, but regulation in the UK and airspace control prevented its operation in the UK.108 We explore the specifics of BVLOS in further detail at paragraph 140.

67.We were told that there were still considerable barriers to drones being appropriately utilised for emergency services. The CAA still had certain requisites for drones that were being used by emergency services, which included:

68.However, earlier this year the CAA announced that any member of the UK emergency services who was operating a drone during a situation that presented a major risk to life could be exempt from the 2016 Air Navigation Order and would be able to fly it beyond visual line of sight and around people and buildings.110 Despite this, Surrey Search and Rescue told us that further exemptions still needed to be made for commercial organisations that used drones for emergency service operations, as currently the legislation only applied to those who were employed by an emergency service organisation:

Organisations belonging to Lowland Rescue, Mountain Rescue and the RNLI are not considered to be Emergency Services by the CAA despite being requested by and deployed on behalf of the Emergency Services. Discussion and legislation changes are required to allow drones assisting Emergency Services to be able to use the E5406 Emergency Services exemption if suitably authorised. In these times of cost cutting and lack of resources the Emergency Services are relying more on civilian drones to help them operationally.111

69.Notably, Nesta told the Committee that in order to increase public perception of drone technology “public benefit use cases” such as use within the emergency services was a good place to start:

From the public perception perspective, we think that will familiarise people with the public benefit use cases and help them to think about where drones may or may not operate in cities. That lays the groundwork for the type of decision-making infrastructure and thinking that will allow for some of the other commercial opportunities, including parcel delivery and others.112

70.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.

64 Mr Peter Hague (RDU0102) para 4

65 William Legge (RDU0115); Mr Martin Cocking (RDU0122), Mr Fraser Steen (RDU0123) para 1

66 Melvyn Bond (RDU0024) para 1

67 Arron Banfield (RDU0138) p 2

68 BDRA, “The home of British Drone Racing”, accessed 7/10/2019

69 University of Birmingham (RDU0036) para 7.6

70 University of Birmingham (RDU0036) para 7.1

71 University of the West of England (RDU0029) para 7; Mr Geoffrey Hirst (RDU0061) p 5

72 Mr Geoffrey Hirst (RDU0061) p 5

74 NATS (RDU0175)

76 University of Birmingham (RDU0036) para 4.1

78 Mr Christopher Llewellyn (RDU0008); Mr Andy Dubreuil (RDU0011)

79 Martin Hall (RDU0035)

80 PwC, “Clarity from above”, accessed 7/10/2019

81 Professor Jason Reifler, Professor Thomas Scotto, Dr Catarina Thomson and Dr Judd Thornton (RDU0092), p 5

83 Ibid.

84 University of Birmingham (RDU0036) para 4.3

85 Security Institute (RDU0106) para 3

87 Hill, C., “WATCH: Crop-spraying drone offers glimpse into farming’s future”, Eastern Daily Press (February 2019)

88 Arron Banfield (RDU0138)

89 Wilke, J., “A drone program taking flight”, June 2019

90 Mr Shaun Madill (RDU0078); NATS (RDU0124) para 3

92The Regulatory Sandbox provides a capability for users to work with the CAA to test and trial innovative solutions in a safe environment, in particular those solutions that do not fit within the existing scope of regulations, permissions, and exemptions.”

93 Civil Aviation Authority, “The CAA regulatory sandbox”, accessed 7/10/2019

94 William Legge (RDU0115)

95 Nesta, “Understanding the public perception of drones”, accessed 7/10/2019

96 Ibid.

97 Department for Transport and Ministry of Defence, “Public dialogue on drone use in the UK: Moving Britain Ahead”, para 3.1

99 Skyports, “Introducing Volo-Port, the world’s first vertiport”, accessed 9/10/2019

102 Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police (RDU0171), p 1

104 Surrey Search and Rescue (RDU0125) para 1

109 Civil Aviation Authority, “Small Unmanned Aircraft - Emergency Services Operations”, General Exemption E 4506, Air Navigation Order 2016, 31 July 2017

110 Civil Aviation Authority, “Applications for unmanned aircraft operational authorisations”, accessed 7/10/2019

111 Surrey Search and Rescue (RDU0125) para 6.5

Published: 11 October 2019