Legislating for the future: Drones in the UK

Portions originally published in The Guardian.

by Joseph Raczynski

1. What are your thoughts on the UK's drone regulations/regulatory approach, and how does it compare to other approaches around the world? Are there any ideas we should borrow from Australia, the US, etc?

Drone enthusiast beware, a new era of regulation is about to hit the air. On July 31, 2018 a new set of laws will go into effect in the UK. The rules are more restrictive than in the past, stating:

  • Do not fly higher than 400 feet
  • Stay at least one kilometer outside of the airport walls
  • Keep the drone in constant direct eyesight
  • Fly no closer than 150 metres from crowds of 1,000 or more people (think stadiums)
  • Kept it 50 metres away from people and private property
  • On November 30, 2019 everyone who owns a drone that weighs 250 grams or more will need to study up. After that date you will need to register your drone with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and then pass an online drone safety test.  Failure to do both will land you a fine of £1,000.
  • There are multiple sights that drone owners can go to understand the landscape better. Drone Safe UK is one of them.

These rules are not the most restrictive found around the world, but they are certainly not the most lenient either. In fact, if you strictly adhere to these rules, it is more than likely that your drone will remain grounded, unless you live in a very rural location. The most challenging of the above is keeping the quadcopter 50 metres away from people and private property. Just launching your drone in an urban or suburban area will break this rule. Operators will need to do considerable research before taking flight. To that end, numerous mobile apps are available to assist in your planning before you fly.

Every country around the world seems to have issued guidance in this area. While the UK is more restrictive than most, the norm, also the rules in the US, seems to be keeping the drone within eyesight, flying no higher than 400 feet, staying away from crowds, possibly registering the device, and not flying closer than five miles from airports. There are more restrictive countries like Morocco where drones are now completely banned. If you bring a drone into the country without declaring it, they will confiscate the device. Australia has very similar rules to the US which are less onerous than the new UK rules. I have flown in UAE, Costa Rica, US, UK, Colombia, Switzerland, and several other countries and most allow you to fly following the aforementioned rules.

All countries are grappling with their policies on drone usage. The concerns range from privacy to safety. Privacy issues will always be a concern with a small minority of pilots flying over private property recording video where a private citizen has the expectation of privacy. The safety concern is one most likely to fade away over the next five years, when the devices become even more reliable and safe. Currently there has been marked improvement in the way the software on drones handle a dying battery, location awareness, and object avoidance. These are now standard on most new drones, so that the devices can return home safely and therefore tend to drop out of the sky far less frequently than a few years ago.

2. How do we balance regulation and technology to ensure drone innovation isn't held back? Do we have a good balance so far?

The newest drones are amazing! My current version can fly four miles away, shoots in 4K video, and can go at least a mile high – not that I have flown it that far. The technology is well beyond what we are currently allowed to do. The alarm bells sounded recently, and subsequent regulation created when some operators did dumb things. People have been caught flying over football stadiums during games, others have flown in the path of airplanes or over forest fires putting emergency helicopter workers in danger. The issue is that these devices are powerful and now put into the hands of the masses, some have made poor decisions, which could impact general safety and people’s privacy. I think in the short term we are going to see more restrictive rules like what the UK is enacting now, but in the long term these will ease. They will relax, as the devices become safer with newer technology – software and sensors. They will have better obstacle avoidance and baked in no-fly zones will be a norm across all manufactures. Currently a handful of drone producers have software that if you try to take off next to Big Ben, the drone won’t even move because it uses GPS.

Since we have people sometimes making poor decisions, the current set of normalized rules found in most countries make sense. I would suggest that the UK has gone a bit further than I would deem reasonable, but still generally acceptable.

3. How do you see drones influencing city planning? What do drones mean for residential development (delivery pads on apartment roofs)? What about noise considerations and safety?

The next great leap into the future that is happening at an exponential rate will be service drones in densely populated areas. Clearly delivery drones are coming. Amazon is testing this now. So you will be able to purchase your bag of crisps and soft drinks via your mobile and have them delivered via drone in short order. This will impact how buildings are constructed. You will see more landing pads off of balconies. In addition, non-balcony flats will have landing pads on the roof, with autonomous rolling rovers which will pick up the drone dropped package and deliver it to your front door. If you live by a beach, drones are starting to be used in saving lives. Instead of a lifeguard having to jump off from their perch, run across the hot sand, battle the waves to get to the struggling person, they will launch a drone fly it above the person in distress and drop the life preserver. The first water rescue of this manner happened in March down in Australia. Another plan is to have drones help guide you to open parking spaces in the city. Do you want to get a closer look at out of reach parts of London Bridge as a tourist? You will be able to dawn a headset and a mini drone will take you to parts of the bridge unseen by most. Drones might monitor traffic. Helping with real-time incident reports for accidents, and giving real-time feedback about troubled areas. We will also see drones watching over as police helpers. Making sure that areas which might have more crime are being monitored more closely.

The noise issue is also temporary. Companies are now creating “props” or propellers that make far less noise than even a year ago, and this will continue to improve until we have something that is nearly silent.

There are countless other areas that will be impacted with drones. Fire and rescue, compliance for real estate ordinances – did you build a deck without a permit?

4. How can drone rules be enforced? What good technologies have you seen in use so far?

Right now drone rules are being enforced by the drone companies. They are baking into their software all of the rules and regulations mentioned earlier based on your location and common standards. This is being done proactively for fear of the Morocco situation – an outright ban of recreation drones. Every time I turn on my drone, it asks me to update my software, it adds new “no-fly zones” as more and more areas around the world request a no drone area. Companies are simply trying to self-regulate. On the other side, honestly it is very difficult for enforcement to go after operators. They essentially need to witness a drone flying in a restricted area, then find the person flying the device. They typically find them as the drone runs low on battery and the pilot brings it down. It is only a matter of minutes for the enforcement to find that person before they take off. In very restricted areas, some countries have devices to scramblers the communications of the drone operator, which can do a few things to the misguided drone; drop it out of the sky or take over the flight from the owner.

5. How do you see drones actually being used in the next five years? What use cases are over hyped and which are realistic?

I believe in some areas we will have drone delivery. I actually think in the next 5 to 10 years we will have the flying vehicles people always dreamed about. The first human drone vehicles have been made. The major hurtle will be regulation of these devices. Drones will routinely monitor forests looking for hot spots to prevent massive forest fires. I think we will start seeing some policing with drones, observing areas with high crime. Selfie drones, the size of a deck of cards will be in most tourist’s pockets. They will have a very limited distance and primarily take pictures and video from cool new perspectives… like you rock-climbing 500 feet above a ravine and you simply call it out to take a video and then returns to your momentarily free hand. I think you will also start to see ambulance drones – is someone having a heart attack near you. You call 911 and the drone is dispatched much faster and arrives in a few minutes compared to the ambulance itself.

This tech is just about to take off. The next few years are going to be a mix of tech pushing the boundaries and regulators having to make new decisions.