After Britain’s busiest airport grounded flights for almost an hour in response to a suspected drone sighting (“the Heathrow shutdown”), it was fairly reported that: ‘The latest incident will raise further concerns about why detection and blocking devices...
...have not already been permanently deployed to prevent a repeat of the Gatwick shutdown.1 During “the Gatwick shutdown”, it was estimated that around 350,000 passengers suffered ‘days of chaos at Gatwick after drones forced the closure of Britain’s second-biggest airport’, in which the army was called out ‘as the police were left seemingly powerless to stop the drones’.2
It is unsurprising, then, that two days before the Heathrow shutdown, it was announced that: ‘New legislation will give police officers the power to land drones, search premises and seize drones and will require users to produce the proper documentation.’3 At the time of writing, the Draft Drones (Regulation) Bill is expected to have its second reading on Friday, 15 February 2019. If passed, it will regulate the purchase and use of drones weighing five kilograms or more.4
In light of the above, it is opportune to identify the regulatory environment around drones, and the proposed legislative response to the recent shutdowns at the UK’s busiest airports, so as to offer an informed view as to whether an appropriate balance is being achieved ‘to ensure safety, security and accountability of the drone industry, whilst harnessing the benefits that drones, used in a safe way, can bring to the UK economy.’5
This article begins by exploring the institutions, hard regulations and soft guidance that make up the regulatory environment surrounding drones. National (UK), regional (European Union), and international (United Nations) regulations and guidance are outlined, the incidence of airprox caused by drones is identified, and an analysis undertaken as to whether the civil and the criminal law are up to the challenge of effectively regulating drones.
Having done so, the modest view is endorsed that the current regulatory environment is achieving an acceptable balance between ensuring safety, security and accountability of the drone industry, whilst also harnessing the benefits that drones can bring. Should that balance change, however, there are additional, potentially more effective options open to regulators that would incorporate the market, and architecture (coding) into the regulatory environment.
1 The Times (9 January 2019)
2 The Times (21 December 2018)
3 Department for Transport, ‘New police powers to tackle illegal use of drones’ (7 January 2019)
4 Parliament, ‘Drone (Regulation) Bill 2017-19’
5 Department for Transport, Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK: Government Response (January 2019)
Dominic Bright / 28th Jan 2019
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