Many of you may have seen headlines such as ‘Government Announces New Drone Laws’ and there may have been an assumption that these were some kind of knee-jerk reaction to the recent events at Gatwick Airport. Although we don’t doubt that this may have speeded things up a little, in reality, the ‘new laws’ are simply an evolution of the existing Air Navigation Order and follow an industry-wide consultation period that ran from July to September last year. But what exactly is new about these changes?
Quite a lot of what you’ve been reading in the press has long since been known about. For example, the introduction of a registration process for drone operators coming into effect on 30 November this year was first announced back in May 2018. As with any legislation, the latest report from the government is more of an update on the ongoing consultancy period, as ideas are proposed and either pushed forward, discounted or put aside for a rethink.
In terms of what’s actually new, there has been an extension of the exclusion zones around airports, while new proposals are being put forward to give greater power to the police to enforce the law. There are many other proposals covered in the report, including the likes of a minimum age for operators, exemptions for model aircraft fliers and flight information systems. But for now, let’s clear up what we know is actually changing in regards to the drone rules and regulations.
Air Navigation Order
The Air Navigation Order, first amended for drone use in 2016, gave us the basic framework for drone use in the UK. Building on general aviation rules, it loosely translates as ‘don’t be an idiot’; so don’t fly recklessly and endanger people or buildings. More specifically to drones, it dictates that you need to maintain visual line of sight with the craft and if you have a camera on board then you can’t fly within 50m of people or buildings, or within 150m of densely populated areas (without specific permissions or consent, otherwise known as and Operational Safety Case).
The 2018 Air Navigation Order amendments saw the announcement of those aforementioned plans for the registration of drone owners, where the individual is registered and that registration number is then applied to each craft they own. The mandatory ‘Acknowledgement of Competency’ educational training is likely to be a quick and easy online process. As yet there’s no word on any costs involved with either, though we’re assured it will be minimal.
More immediately the 2018 changes saw the 400ft ‘rule’ – previously law for 7kg+ craft, for anything else it was simply a CAA guideline for ensuring you maintain that required visual line of sight – come into legal effect for all drones as of 30 July. It also introduced a 1km exclusion zone for drones under 7kg outside the boundaries of protected aerodromes. It’s to the latter where the most notable, and immediate, change comes into effect.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given recent events, greater safety around airports and aerodromes is top of the list, supported by giving the police new powers to pursue those using drones in such dangerous ways. As far as the regulations go, there are additional exclusion zones being added to areas surrounding runways. These extend outwards from either end of each runway, in a rectangle extending 5km in the direction of take-off or landing and 1km wide.
In addition, whereas previously only drones heavier than 7kg were restricted from flying with an airport’s ‘Aerodrome Traffic Zone’, or ATZ, now all drone owners will need to apply for permission to fly in this area by contacting Air Traffic Control. This latest update clarifies the ATZ as a 4.6km radius from the site’s Aerodrome Reference Point, or basically its central geographical location – so if you wanted to inspect a property within that region then you’ll need to agree a plan with the airport (and most are happy to cooperate if you give them a call).
The obvious intention of further reducing the risk of inadvertently flying into the flight path of manned craft taking off or coming into land was welcomed by most of the 5000+ people who responded during the consultancy period (nearly half of which were leisure users). It is due to be implemented “as soon as possible” with further consultation and reviews continuing through the year.
There are several other aspects that could be related to these exclusion zones, with the report acknowledging the potential for geofencing technology, for example – which could, to some extent, put a greater responsibility on the manufacturers to prevent drones being able to enter no-fly zones such as these.
Similarly the Department for Transport is working towards a set of ‘Standards’ or rules of best practice for manufacturers and users alike, with a drone-based initiative already well in progress with the British Standards Institute. There are many other ongoing proposals covered in the report that are still some way from actually becoming law but are likely to take shape at some point in the future – which we’ll explain more on in a later article.
Of course, there is also the question of enforcing all of these laws, and the announcement of greater powers being given to the police is a natural step. While it might seem a little intimidating, with the police able to search properties (with a warrant) and confiscate drones suspected of criminal activity, the truth is that these powers already exist for most serious crimes and it’s simply a case of translating those protocols into the drone world. We’ll cover all of the major features for you in another upcoming article.
Of course, not everyone will agree with these measures, or may see them as a little heavy-handed, but such changes are inevitable as the technology evolves. It is being done in consultation with the drone users themselves and with a clear picture of the benefits and potential of the industry, and the hope is to make things life easier for all of us law-abiding folk inside the drone world, as well as giving some assurances to those on the outside who will have some very valid (and now very public) concerns. We’ll have more updates for you as and when they happen!