Out-Law News 3 min. read

Fly safely or risk prosecution, UK's Civil Aviation Authority warns hobby drone owners

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued fresh warnings to recreational drone owners in the UK, reminding them to fly "safely and legally" and not use cameras within 50 metres of people, buildings or vehicles.

New 'Dronecode' guidance, issued by the regulator in conjunction with air traffic control service NATS and BALPA, the pilots' union, was prompted by "a number of recent incidents involving drones and various aircraft", the CAA said. On each occasion, the drone operators appeared to be flying the devices well above drone height limits and in areas where large aircraft were present, it said.

Tim Johnson, the CAA's director of policy, said that individuals flying drones for fun had to be aware that "when taking to the skies they are entering one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world".

"We want to embrace and enable the innovation that arises from the development of drone technology, but we must ensure that it is done safely, with all airspace users in mind," he said. "Interest in drones has developed rapidly in the last couple of years and our main concern is to ensure owners of drones can enjoy this rapidly growing technology safely and have regard for all other airspace users when doing so."

UK rules governing the use of small unmanned aircraft require them to be flown within the operator's normal "unaided line of sight", generally measured as 500m horizontally or 400ft vertically. Drones fitted with cameras cannot be flown within 50m of people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or within 150m of congested areas, such as at concerts or sporting events. In addition, "recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight" is a criminal offence in the UK which can carry a custodial sentence.

The CAA's new guidance re-states that it is the drone operator's responsibility to be aware of the laws governing drones. In particular, operators should make sure that they can see their drones at all times and keep the devices away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields, it said. The regulator also welcomed moves by drone manufacturers to build 'geo-fencing' into their products to prevent them being flown into certain areas, such as airport control zones.

Drones can be used for a variety of commercial purposes, such as by broadcasters for capturing aerial images or by construction companies to monitor project progress or inspect oil and gas pipelines. In the US, Amazon has recently been granted permission to test the delivery of goods using drones, albeit subject to strict regulatory controls. In the UK, commercial use of unmanned aircraft is prohibited without the consent of the CAA.

Technology law expert Luke Scanlon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the safety issues highlighted by the CAA were one of a number of potential risks that "needed to be understood" before the drone technology could be commercially exploited more widely in the UK. However, he said that many innovative small businesses were willing to take on the challenges.

"Geo-fencing technology, as highlighted by the regulator, and avoid and detect systems raise potential cyber security issues: where drones are automatically prevented from colliding, or flying into pre-programmed geographical areas or above certain heights, manufacturers need to ensure that the software will not be vulnerable to cyber attacks and that the communications link between operator and drone will not be hijacked mid-flight," he said. "And as the industry grows, so too will concerns about lack of availability of communications  spectrum."

The development of data protection laws as applicable to drones would also be important, in order to ensure provision of sufficient privacy protections without subjecting small businesses to overly burdensome regulation, he said. Although EU data protection rules generally govern the collection, processing and retention of personal data in a commercial context, a ruling by the Court of Justice late last year means that hobbyists' use of drones in public also needs to adhere to data protection rules where they capture images of individuals, he said.

The European parliament is currently considering the introduction of EU-wide laws on civil drone use, with members of its transport and tourism committee due to vote on a report drafted by UK MEP Jacqueline Foster in September. Foster's draft report calls for the introduction of a "global, harmonised and proportionate" regulatory framework, which avoids burdensome regulations that would discourage investment and job creation.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was asked to draft a potential EU-wide regulation on civil drone use in 2014. It is due to report back to the European Commission by the end of this year.

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