Drones can help with planning applications during coronavirus lockdown

Out-Law Analysis | 23 Apr 2020 | 1:54 pm | 2 min. read

Drone technology can replace some of the need for planners, developers and surveyors to visit sites during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Drone footage is already being used for some planning applications. Charlotte Orrell is a senior planner with Iceni Projects in London. She reports their use to 'transport' the professional team, council officers and members, and the public to sites at different stages in the planning process - whether for a virtual site visit or to inform the planning decision generally.

Iceni Projects is using drones to provide up to date, high resolution images of complex sites and this data can be stitched together with 360 degree camera images to provide a tailored 'google street view' style presentation.

"There isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ approach." said Orrell. "We have to work with the wider team and the council to agree on the scope of the footage, which always depends on the nuances of each site and proposal. The footage allows the user to walk, or even fly, around the site at their leisure and zoom in on areas of interest. The information is accessible via a simple link which works on most computers and mobile phones."

Orrell said that this approach has long term benefits beyond keeping the planning system moving when coronavirus makes site access difficult.

"The footage can be stored and shared many times during the planning process without anyone needing to be physically present on site, and it makes a valuable contribution to the digital pre-construction data cache," she said. "This has to be good news for the system generally in terms of cost and time savings." 

There are some practical considerations to bear in mind if using drone footage.

Footage may be disclosed to the public if submitted as part a planning application. A recent case in the First Tier Tribunal held that visual and aural footage of the state of a landscape and natural site was environmental information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. So take as much care as possible to avoid taking images of people. If people are caught on camera consider pixelating the images, including clothing, to ensure anonymity.

If the drone footage captures personal data, which means information that would allow people to be identified, and the footage then becomes part of the application documentation, the council could become the data controller and will need to take potential GDPR issues into account.

Local authorities considering the use of drone footage in place of a site visit should agree some principles about how the data is stored and shared, and why it is being used taking GDPR into account. They may want to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessment if they want to make this part of their regular planning practice.

Any decision to allow virtual site visits and the reasons for that decision should be recorded and placed on the planning register.

Both the Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) and the Information Commission office (ICO) have issued useful guidance on this area.