Lords Science and Technology Committee: more work needed to ensure drone users are not unfairly penalised

October 15, 2019

The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology has published its report on commercial and recreational drone use in the UK. The report says that there needs to be a vision for the future for drones in the UK, drawing on the opportunities and reducing risks presented by increased drone use and that the UK government should produce a White Paper outlining such a vision. 

Drones 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.

According to the Committee, the integration of drones into society carries substantial opportunities and risks that the UK government must address. The report states that the UK government has already taken some action to reduce the risks posed by drones, and had announced plans to introduce a Drones Bill in late 2019 (which is set out in the Queen’s Speech). However, the report states that much more is needed to ensure current drone users are not unfairly penalised, and that criminal drone users should face substantial punishments.

The report recognises the importance of extending Flight Restriction Zones to five kilometres. However, these restriction zones are not clearly or consistently enforced. To deal with this, the UK 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 UK 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 so a test would be appropriate to make sure the operator is fit to operate a drone. The UK 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 UK airspace. The government should conduct a review of the cost of the registration scheme as well as the renewal period.

The Committee recommends 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. The Committee recommends a sliding scale of penalties for failure to register, starting with a warning, and culminating in a fine and a prison sentence.

The Committee says that it is 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.

The Committee’s inquiry heard that drones can have a positive effect on society, including through medical delivery and emergency service provision. It should be possible for organisations which are used in emergency missions to apply for emergency service exemptions to the Air Navigation Order 2016.

The Committee raises concerns about the differing views within the aviation community about the likely severity of damage of a drone collision with an aeroplane. It says there are differing accounts of the number of near misses and the reliability of airprox reports (reports on near-misses) has been disputed. The Committee is concerned that there is no agreed position on the likely consequences of a drone-aeroplane 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, the Committee also recommends that the government make the weaponisation of a drone a specific criminal offence in the Drones Bill and consider stringent penalties for those who take such action. In addition, the Ministry of Defence should 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 UK government should act to improve public perception and awareness of drones by launching a public awareness campaign, no later than the summer of 2020, that highlights the opportunities presented by drones and informs the public about the reality of the risks posed by drones.

The Committee also heard evidence that drone safety education was vital for the safe use of drone by recreational users. Therefore, a copy of the Drone Code should be 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.

According to the Committee, the UK 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 Drones Bill. All drones, including existing drones, should be electronically conspicuous within two years.