Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents


71.This Chapter outlines the evidence that we received relating to the risks posed by the growing drone industry. It specifically focuses on risks posed to manned aircraft in addition to those posed to safety and malign intent, as well as privacy.

Manned Aviation

72.During this inquiry, witnesses voiced concerns about the risks posed by drones to manned aircraft (such as airplanes or helicopters). Specifically, evidence from the British Model Flying Association and Captain Tim Pottage representing the British Airline Pilots Association, referenced the increased number of Airprox reports involving a drone.113 An Airprox is:

A situation in which, in the opinion of a pilot or air traffic services personnel, the distance between aircraft as well as their relative positions and speed have been such that the safety of the aircraft involved may have been compromised.114

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, in 2017, drone incidents accounted for 93 out of the 113 (c. 82%) Airprox reports, and in 2018 they accounted for 125 out of 139 (c. 90%).115 The British Airline Pilots Association’s (BALPA) representative Captain Tim Pottage was asked about the accuracy of recent increased airprox reports. Captain Pottage told us: “Yes, they are [accurate]. They are certainly not an overestimate—put it that way. They may indeed be an underestimate”.116

73.Evidence from the British Model Flying Association and the Flight Safety Board, a board set up to inform flight safety, regulatory and political community on drone airprox likelihood and risk, however, disputed the accuracy and validity of Airprox reports. The Flight Safety Board told us that “we now have airline pilots conditioned to expect to see drones, operating on a hair-trigger” due to media that has “convinced” aircraft pilots that “the skies around UK airports are infested with drones”.117 Furthermore, the BMFA suggested a reason for potential inaccuracies:

Manned vs manned airproxes are usually verified by obtaining reports from the pilots of both aircraft involved. The reports of airproxes involving drones are mostly fleeting observations by one pilot and are not verified by any other evidence. Many of the reports amount to a pilot saying he briefly saw something that he believed was a drone. There must therefore be some doubt that the numbers for drone sightings taken from airprox reports are accurate.118

These views were also heard during the roundtable as set out at Annex 2.

74.Professor David Dunn from the University of Birmingham disputed the view that airprox’s were often fleeting, inaccurate observations, explaining that:

The airprox reports are often very detailed in what they describe, where they are and what they are doing. Therefore, it is not as if it is just a plastic bag in the way, as some people have suggested. The details are there. Just because a drone is near an aircraft, it does not mean that it has been sighted. It is still a danger whether or not it has been sighted. All the airprox reports we have are where drones have been sighted. The number may be 10 times more than that where drones are not sighted but are still a danger to the aircraft.119

Risks to aircraft

75.We also heard evidence that the actual severity of a plane colliding with a drone was not fully known nor was there a consensus on the likely consequences of such a collision. For example, the Civil Aviation Authority offered a less severe analysis of the risk that drones posed to manned aircraft:

It is considered unlikely that a small drone would cause significant damage to a modern turbo-fan jet engine; even if it did, a multi-engine aircraft would still be likely to be able to land safely. The likelihood of a small drone being in proximity of a passenger aircraft when it is travelling fast enough to potentially damage its windscreen is currently about two per million flights. And; the likelihood of a small drone hitting a passenger aircraft windscreen at sufficient speed to rupture it is much smaller than the probability of it being in the proximity of an aircraft.120

76.Captain Tim Pottage, representing BALPA, voiced caution about the CAA’s position. Captain Pottage said that he was:

Concerned that the CAA had that view. There has been no testing of a drone against a large commercial high bypass jet engine—none at all. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it would cause a catastrophic failure, causing a blade to shed and not to be contained within the engine cell.121

We are not aware of any independent tests that have reinforced the above comments from Captain Tim Pottage.

77.The evidence supplied by the Department for Transport referenced recent Airprox figures as an example of the increasing “misuse of drones to threaten safety, privacy and security”.122 They also commissioned a study in 2016, in collaboration with BALPA and the Military Aviation Authority, into the effects of a mid-air collision between small remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS, commonly known as a drones) and manned aircraft. Such a test concluded that drones could cause significant damage to both a helicopter and an airliner under the correct circumstances. This was done with computer testing and under laboratory conditions.123

78.In addition to this, evidence from the UK Model Flying Association disputed the likelihood of drone colliding with an aircraft. They explained that, in recent tests carried out by one of their associated organisations, it had established that the maximum altitude performance of a drone, plus its limited battery life, meant that “pilots who have reported encounters with multi-rotor drones above 6000ft must have been mistaken”:

This absolute performance limit was established by repeatedly climbing to 400ft and descending to the ground until the battery was exhausted. An example of the popular “DJI Phantom 3 Advanced” multi-rotor drone was used. […] It is emphasised that this performance test result is valid for vertical ascent and descent in zero wind only; with no hovering at any height and no movement in any direction. The maximum height is only achievable momentarily and directly above the launch point. Loitering at any height, holding position in any appreciable wind or manoeuvring the aircraft in any direction would drain the battery at a faster rate and reduce the maximum achievable height.124

79.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. If it is not possible to publish the result of this assessment due to security concerns, the Government must provide this Committee with evidential assurances that this work has been done.

Risks to helicopters

80.Several witnesses differentiated between the risk posed to larger manned aircraft and those posed to helicopters. The CAA explained:

The windscreens of small helicopters and light aircraft are more susceptible to rupture if struck by a small drone, even when flying below normal cruising speed […] Helicopters face more risks because of the additional susceptibility of helicopter rotors to damage from a collision with a drone, and their operating patterns which typically involve lower-level flying and take-off and landing from a range of sites.125

BALPA set out three reasons as to why helicopter safety needed significant attention:

  1. “Helicopters are supremely susceptible to catastrophic damage in the event of a drone strike to any part of the aircraft including the windscreen and main and tail rotors”;
  2. “Helicopters are often required to be flown in dense urban areas or in mission critical scenarios where the margin for error is very small”; and
  3. “A large number of helicopter missions are to incidents where there is likely to be an increase in drone activity anyway, such as traffic incidents, police incidents etc.”126

In addition to this, Babcock International, the largest air ambulance operator in the UK, told us that “drones pose a significant danger to aircraft” and “Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) aircraft–air ambulances, are at particular risk of drone collisions”.127

81.Currently, there are no restriction zones for drones around helicopter landing sites to prevent drone incursion. Babcock International explained that current restrictions failed to mitigate the risk of collision under 400 feet, as the Air Navigation Order 2018 and 2019 amendments stated:

With the obvious exception of take-off and landing, the majority of manned aircraft fly at heights greater than 500ft from the surface. While there are some other exceptions where manned aircraft are permitted to fly at ‘low level’ (such as Police, Air Ambulance and Search and Rescue helicopters, as well as military aircraft), flying a small unmanned aircraft below 400ft significantly reduces the likelihood of an encounter with a manned aircraft.128

82.Both Babcock International and Captain Tim Pottage, representing BALPA, called for temporary flight restriction zones around helicopter landing sites to mitigate the increased risk to helicopters:

We still feel strongly that there is a need for a temporary flight restriction zone to be placed around the landing sites of ad hoc landing zones for emergency helicopter activity […] The first thing would be to require that there is a temporary restriction zone. We would suggest 1 km, unless it is co-ordinated with the helicopter pilot.129

83.The Government should introduce temporary drone flight restriction zones around helicopter landing zones. The Government should publish findings from a review on this and legislate accordingly within the next twelve months.

Malign intent and individual safety

84.We also received evidence relating to the risks posed by drones when harnessed for criminal and malign intent, and the threats these posed to the safety of individuals. Areas of concern highlighted to us included drones being used as drug delivery vehicles for prisons and to conduct surveillance by organised crime gangs.

85.Drones also have the capacity to carry items, leading to concerns about them being misused. The carrying capacity of drones has been used in criminal cases, including the use of drones to smuggle contraband into prisons, leading to a number of prosecutions.130 Special Sergeant Kevin Taylor discussed an instance at a prison when “six people got together and flew six drones at once” with the purpose of “drug delivery.”131 He also outlined other potential criminal uses for drones:

At the moment, in Lincolnshire there is no proven link between that and organised crime, but we should keep an open mind. The likelihood is that organised crime gangs use [drones] for carrying out such recces, potentially where they are looking to steal plant machinery and for ATM-type jobs. That is a real risk.132

86.Written evidence provided by recreational drone user Malcom Bailey and others was fully supportive of the use of geo-fencing technology around prisons to prevent drone incursion and felt that if utilised properly it would be effective against accidental drone incursion. Geo-fencing is a software built in to drones with GPS capability to prevent them from flying near certain pre-programmed geographical areas and will be explored in greater detail at paragraph 125. However, others, such as Stephen Ogbourne and Dr Stephen Wright, noted that the technology might not be advanced enough to fully prevent organised criminal gangs from incursion, as GPS software can be over-ridden quite easily by those who have the intent to do so.133

87.The then Aviation Minister explained to us that concerns around prisons would be addressed in the forthcoming Drones Bill:

Obviously, the use of unmanned aircraft around prisons is an issue. There are already offences, but it is the gap between commission and conviction where there could be a bit more help for the police. That is what is included in that Bill.134

88.The Government should consider rolling out geo-fencing as a compulsory measure around prisons and high security areas.

Terrorist use of drones

89.We were also told about the likelihood of the terrorist use of drones in the future by Professor Dunn and Professor Scanlan.135 There were also concerns raised by Richard Parker from Altitude Angel and others that the registration scheme and other proposed regulations would not be adequate to prevent criminal drone use.136 Professor Scanlan, amongst others, felt that there was very little that could be done to prevent terrorist drone use as “terrorists and criminals will not follow regulations, and there is a lot of technology they could assemble and put together and do very annoying, very dangerous, very economically damaging things with.”137

90.During a Defence Committee session for their inquiry into the domestic threat of drones, Dr Anna Jackman, from Royal Holloway University and Specialist Adviser to our inquiry, explained that she felt it was a matter of time until drones were used in a large-sale domestic attack, given both existing and weaponised and disruptive deployments in and beyond battlefields, as well as the drone’s evolving capabilities in speed, intelligent manoeuvring, carrying and broadcast capabilities.138 Further to this, The Financial Times reported in June 2019 that “Police in Europe disrupted plans for 2 drone attacks in their infancy”, suggesting that the use of as a weapon of terror had already begun.139 This is something that our colleagues on the Defence Committee will be looking at in more detail, so we will not comment on this further.

91.We also heard about the capacity for the weaponisation of drones, which Dr Stephen Wright from the University of West England described as “a salient risk […] which will not be countered by legislation and requires active policing and countermeasures”.140 Currently, there is no explicit legislation on the weaponisation of drones as a criminal offence. The Civil Aviation Authority explained that “you must not endanger anyone, or anything with your UAS, including any articles that you drop from it” and the Air Navigation Order 2016, article 241 explained that “a person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”, but there is nothing explicit about the attachment of weapons to a drone.141 The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made it illegal to do so, according to Section 363 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act enacted on 5 October 2018.142 If an individual is found in violation of that, they might be subject to a civil penalty of up to $25,000.

92.The then Minister told us that the Government had begun to take the necessary action to address gaps in police powers to tackle criminal and malign drone use. When asked about the upcoming Drones Bill, which focuses on extending police powers, the then Aviation Minister said:

It plugs the gap that the police have told us they feel exists at the moment. The registration system comes in at the end of November. The unmanned aircraft Bill will make sure that there are appropriate offences for not being registered. It will include stop and search. At the moment, a police constable cannot stop and search somebody if they suspect they have committed an offence with an unmanned aircraft and shoved it in their bag. We need to fill that particular gap. It covers entry to a house looking for a specific unmanned aircraft—all those sorts of thing.143

93.There are considerable risks to safety arising from drones, and we welcome that the Government will be addressing malign and criminal drone use in its forthcoming Drones Bill.

94.The Government should introduce the Drones Bill by November 2019. Once the Bill has been passed and come into force, the Government must keep under review the success of the legislation in enabling the police to better tackle criminal and negligent behaviour. 12 months after enactment, the Government should publish an analysis of the success of the legislation, ensuring that it asks law enforcement agencies directly if they feel that the increase in their powers has helped them to better tackle criminal drone use. The Government must then respond accordingly to any issues that are raised.

95.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.

96.We recommend that the Ministry of Defence make malicious drone use a top intelligence priority.


97.We received evidence relating to how drones might cause a concern for the privacy of individuals. Much of the concern we heard was in relation to drones collecting data on individuals without their knowledge or consent. For example, the UK Computing Research Committee explained that the ethical issues related to drones included the operators “ability to observe and record private property where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy”.144 Furthermore, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), told us:

The Committee is right to also look at the ethical considerations around citizens’ privacy as this is an area the public are concerned about. Drones fitted with video or audio equipment are highly capable of advanced overt surveillance. There is a risk that they can be used either deliberately or inadvertently to capture vast amounts of personal data including images and the location of individuals without their informed consent. This is highly privacy intrusive and recent media reports have highlighted the potential harms when drones are misused.145

98.For commercial drone operators, the ICO outlined that personal data, such as location or personal images, was protected by General Data Protection Regulations and the Data Protection Act 2018. For hobbyists, or recreational drone users, the ICO explained that “personal data processed in the course of a purely personal or household activity, with no connection to a professional or commercial activity, is outside the GDPR’s scope.” This means, according to the ICO, that:

Hobbyists still needed to be alive to the potential privacy intrusion their drone might cause others as this was often an area of contention. Domestic users should therefore adopt a common-sense approach and always operate drones in a responsible way to respect the privacy of others.146

99.The Department for Transport told us that there were currently a number of laws in place which also protected citizen privacy in the UK:

  1. “Article 95 of the ANO 2016 (Air Navigation Order 2016) which restricts a small surveillance drone from being flown over or within 150m of congested areas, an organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 people, or within 50m of any vessels, vehicle, structure or people”;
  2. “In addition to complying with the aviation-specific rules, a drone user must also comply with the law more generally. For example, if a drone user is flying over the property of another person, their action could amount to trespass if the aircraft is not flying at a height which is reasonable in all the circumstances, even if the provisions of the ANO 2016 have been complied with”; and
  3. “The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 also restricts any undertaking of commercial activity, such as filming or photography, on open access land without the permission of the landowner.”147

100.We heard from others, such as the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, that, due to this legislation, the threat to privacy from a drone was no greater than that of a mobile photograph or other recording device.148 The Royal Aeronautical Society told us that “it would be wrong to assume that drones are more dangerous to the public than road vehicles or that they threaten privacy more than mobile phone cameras”.149 Similarly, the Royal Academy of Engineering explained that the risks were “unlikely to be greater than those existing from smart phone cameras, and as such, these issues are already adequately covered by existing UK privacy legislation”.150 Further, recreational drone user Mr Christopher Murr told us that the current regulations that governed drone use were adequate for protecting the privacy of the general public, including no flying over built-up crowds and no flying within 50m of people.151

101.Furthermore, we also heard from many recreational and commercial drone users that the ability for an individual to use a drone to capture high quality data on an individual, or “spy”, was limited due to the limitations of recreational drones. For example, Mr Christopher Llewellyn told us that the focal length of the lens would be too short to successfully capture an individual’s features: “it effectively renders facial details indistinguishable from 50ft of more elevation”.152 This perspective was supported by other witnesses, including Mr Howard Lewis and Stephen Ogborne, amongst others.153 Gemma Alcock, representing Skybound rescuer, also concurred with this perspective in her evidence.154 Furthermore, recreational drone user Mr Wynne Davies explained that “the likelihood of a drone being used to spy on someone is very low due to the noise it produces with its blades” and that it would make much more sense for a long telephoto lens to be used to capture ones image.155

102.ADS Group, a trade organisation representing the aerospace community, highlighted the significant role that education could play in lessening the privacy risks from drones: “this risk is best mitigated, though not eliminated, instead through an expansion of the existing Dronecode campaign, teaching all drone users how to avoid unnecessary infringements on personal privacy.”156

103.Though the images of individuals collected by commercial drones are protected by legislation, educating the public and drone users about data collection is key to addressing concerns over privacy. We note the assurances that current cameras are not high definition enough to capture identifiable photos and that this may be true now but with technological developments and advancements the risk to privacy is likely to increase over time. The upcoming Drones Bill should clarify the legislation in relation to the privacy risks posed by drones for i) commercial users; and ii) recreational users. Furthermore, the Government should ensure that the Drones Bill makes clear that it is a criminal offence for both a private drone user and a commercial operator to capture an individual’s data without their consent, and what the penalties are for such action. This information should then be made available to both drone operators and the general public via the Drone Code.

113 British Model Flying Association (RDU0082) para 9; Q204

114 Civil Aviation Authority, “Airprox”, accessed 7/10/2019

115 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)

117 Flight Safety Board (RDU0107) para 4

118 British Model Flying Association (RDU0082) para 11

120 Civil Aviation Authority (RDU0130) para 9

122 Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 8

123 Military Aviation Authority, BALPA, Department for Transport, “Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) Mid-Air Collision Study”, 2016

124 British Model Flying Association, Scottish Aeromodellers Association, First Person View UK, and the Large Model Association (RDU0192)

125 Civil Aviation Authority (RDU0130) para 9

126 BALPA (RDU0121)

127 Babcock International (RDU0088)

128 Babcock International (RDU0088)

133 Stephen Ogborne (RDU0012) para 3; University of the West of England (RDU0029) para 8.4

140 University of the West of England (RDU0029), para 3

142 Federal Aviation Authority, “Drones and Weapons: A Dangerous Mix”, accessed 7/10/2019

144 UK Computing Research Committee (RDU0031), para 1

145 Information Commissioner’s Office (RDU0170) para 1

146 Ibid.

147 Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 2

148 Royal Aeronautical Society (RDU0086), para 2.2.1

149 Ibid.

150 Royal Academy of Engineering (RDU0111)

151 Mr Christopher Murr (RDU0015)

152 Mr Christopher Llewellyn (RDU0008)

153 Mr Howard Lewis (RDU0009); Stephen Ogborne (RDU0012) para 1

155 Mr Wynne Davies (RDU0007)

156 ADS Group (RDU0085)

Published: 11 October 2019