New UK drone laws are on the way – but actual Drones Bill still in limbo

400ft height limit will not apply to first-person-view fliers, says aviation regulator

New drone laws will be brought forward by the British government today in Parliament – but we won't see the long-awaited Drones Bill.

The new laws will make it illegal to fly a drone weighing more than 250g without first registering with the Civil Aviation Authority and passing online safety tests.

In addition, the existing 400ft legal maximum height for drone flights will be applied to drones weighing between 250g and 7kg (at the moment that only applies to craft weighing more than 7kg) and a 1km exclusion zone will be applied around all airport boundaries, defined as EASA certified aerodromes, licensed aerodromes and government aerodromes.

This suggests that unlicensed but active aerodromes such as Popham airfield in Hampshire, as well as farmyard "field strips" used for microlights and other light aircraft, will not be subject to the 1km exclusion zone rule.

Failing to register with the CAA or pass the online tests before flying will become a criminal offence carrying a £1,000 fine.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman confirmed that these new laws will not repeal the existing 1,000ft height limit for consumer drones fitted with first-person-view tech, telling The Register: "Certainly for the time being, FPV flying will not change," and emphasising that FPV flyers must follow the existing guidelines in the exemption.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg said in a statement: "Whilst we want this industry to innovate and grow, we need to protect planes, helicopters and their passengers from the increasing numbers of drones in our skies. These new laws will help ensure drones are used safely and responsibly."

She was joined by Gatwick Airport's chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, who chipped in to say: "These clear regulations, combined with new surveillance technology, will help the police apprehend and prosecute anyone endangering the travelling public."

The laws will be introduced through amendments to the Air Navigation Order, which are said to be laid before Parliament this afternoon. The height and airport proximity rules will come into force (if passed) from 30 July this year, while the registration and online testing moves will become binding from 30 November 2019.

It's a 'mixed bag', says industry

The drone industry has mostly welcomed the proposed new laws while awaiting precise detail in order to assess its likely impact. At the commercial end of the scale, Chinese drone-maker DJI's European public policy chief, Christian Struwe, said the amendments "strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing the benefits of drone technology to British businesses and the public at large". He also praised DfT's "commitment to accessible online testing as a way of helping drone users to comply with the law".

In contrast, drone security researcher Ian Povey of Clear View Security, while agreeing that the 400ft height limit and airport exclusion zone are good things, branded the rest of it "a rushed, half-baked, temporary measure to plug some gaps", adding that in his view "it does nothing to improve the educational environment or public awareness".

Fellow licensed drone operator Ian Hudson told The Register that the changes were a "mixed bag", praising the 400ft legal limit as being helpful to courts in prosecutions of "deliberately high flying, of which there are many examples on YouTube and Facebook", but branded the drone register as "a token gesture that will be of little practical benefit".

Hudson also pointed out that current enforcement is lax, raising the question of whether new laws will be any better enforced than what we currently have.

"The question is," said Hudson, "given existing legislation isn't routinely enforced, why should we expect these amendments will be? If the plan is to say 'register or else the police will prosecute you' that will have little to no effect as everyone can see enforcement isn't happening so it's a blunt threat. I'd also raise the rhetorical question: 'Why isn't anyone pressuring YouTube and Facebook to take down irresponsible drone videos to begin with?' That will remove the motivation for the internet narcissists to show off."

A rather thoughtful Phil Tarry, another licensed drone operator who spoke to The Register in a private capacity (and not with his Royal Aeronautical Society drone committee hat on), opined: "It's not going to be a comprehensive solution to the problem of people flying drones illegally ... hopefully, as happens in society in general, society will tend to self-regulate, so once people become more aware of what is required, other people will start to approach people flying and say hey, have you done your tests, or have you registered your drone, and then society starts looking after itself because it's been given the tools to do so." ®

Bootnote

When we say licensed drone operator, we, of course, mean someone who has the appropriate permission slip from the Civil Aviation Authority. There is, pedantically speaking, no such thing as a UK drone licence. Yet, if it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, then it's a duck. And if it looks like a licence, and is required like a licence, then, well...




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