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Life’s A Drone

Drones are fast becoming one of the must have gadgets since their launch. It is predicted that the drone industry will create as many as 150,000 jobs in the EU by the year 2050. Once a device only reserved for the use of the military, more and more people are now able to own their own drone for as little as £10. They are becoming more sophisticated, with later models possessing the ability to take video footage. Online retailer Amazon has even looked into the possibility of using drones to deliver their packages. With the increase and popularity of drones increasing day by day, what are the laws and regulations you should be aware of?

Drones are frequently in the news, from being a nuisance, being used to smuggle phones into prison, causing disruptions and delays at airports, to the invasion of privacy. Just recently they were banned from within a 32 mile radius of this year’s Super Bowl.

More seriously though, there has been a number of alarming incidents where drones have been involved in near misses with passenger aircrafts, narrowly avoiding disastrous consequences. One example was back in 2014 when an Airbus A320 was 700ft off the ground and nearly hit by a drone at Heathrow Airport. In December 2015 alone, the UK Air Proximity Board looked at seven reported incidents, four of which were classed as category A, where a serious risk of collision existed.

In 2014, a man was convicted for dangerous use of a drone after he lost control of it near a nuclear submarine facility. He was fined £800 and ordered to pay the costs of Furness and District Magistrate Court totalling £3,500.

While last September, the first case in England was heard in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where another Man was charged by the Crown Prosecution Service for the use of drones and flying them without keeping them in ‘direct visual contact’. The man from Nottinghamshire was eventually found guilty of illegally flying drones over London landmarks and professional football matches and fined £1,800.

However, recklessly driving drones near planes and out of sight are not the only ways to fall foul of the law. What recreational users like you and I should also be wary of are the risks to public safety and causing personal injury to others. There is a real potential that drones may lead to public liability compensation claims if injury or upset is caused to another.

It could only take a simple gust of wind, malfunction, driver error or flat battery for a well-intentioned person to seriously injure an innocent bystander or cause a serious road accident. For example Austrian skiing champion, Marcel Hirscher was nearly killed last year when a camera drone only narrowly avoided falling on him when he was competing in a slalom race in Italy.

If such accidents and injuries were to occur, you could be faced with a personal injury claim whereby you could be liable to pay compensation. Even if a child was at the helm of the drone, then such a claim is likely to proceed against the adult who brought the child the drone if such injury was foreseeable.

The law on drones for everyday users

So what are the laws and advice that everyday users should be aware of to avoid such incidents and claims arising against them?

The law on drones is currently limited. The House of Lords EU Committee recently called for all drones, whether for commercial or civil use, to be compulsory registered on an online database or app in the future. It was also suggested that all drone flights should be traceable, though the difficulty surrounding unlicensed purchases would remain to be solved. This would allow the Government to manage traffic and safety concerns. The British Airline Pilots Association has supported this recommendation as well as calling for stricter rules to combat “irresponsible flying”. In December, a similar scheme was set up by the US government, whereby all drones must now be registered before their first flight.

Air Navigation Order 2009

While these proposals are being considered, the law on drones is currently governed by the Air Navigation Order 2009. Some of the key points that those operating small unmanned surveillance aircraft/drones should be aware of are:

  •  A recreational drone must weigh less than 20kg and not be used for commercial purposes.
  • Drones to be used for commercial purposes must first obtain prior authority from the Civil Aviation Authority.
  • Drones must always be “within sight”/in direct visual contact of the user. This means no further than 500 meters so collisions with people and buildings can be avoided.
  • Drones must not fly higher than 400ft.
  • Drones should not be flown within 50 meters of any person, vehicle, aircraft, structure or vessel not under the user’s control (unless prior authority has been gained from the Civil Aviation Authority).
  • A drone with a fitted camera should not be flown within 150 meters of a congested area or large group of people such as a sporting event.
  • Drones should not be flown over or within 150 meters of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1000 people.

By following these simple guidelines the risk of you causing injury to others will be substantially reduced.

What lies ahead for drones

As we see instances of personal injury rise, however, and as the capabilities of drones improves and evolves, so too will the likely legal framework that governs them. Similarly, the issues of invasion of privacy, recording people without their consent, breaching the Data Protection Act and CCTV code of Practice, harassment and the potential to cause catastrophic disasters will also come to the forefront.

It has therefore been suggested that the police will now need to be less lenient, and stronger punishments should be given to those who break the law.

It has been muted and that in the future drones will need to be compulsory insured much like how you would a car. This would not only protect a user’s drone in the event it is damaged or stolen, but more importantly would cover the user in the event they injure someone, or a claim is brought against them for the invasion of another’s privacy.

Many home insurers have already foreseen the potential risk that drones may cause, and many have explicitly excluded them from their policies, be that for damaging your own drone or causing injury to others.

Other suggestions put forward to minimise the risk of drones include training eagles to intercept them, and inbuilt software that mean they are prevented from entering airspace using GPS technology. However, many of the basic models would not have this technology and it would not solve the problem of people who build their own drones.

Even the smallest of drones could cause the biggest of accidents. It would only take one catastrophic event to set the industry back by years, and for this reason it is important that further laws are brought into force to regulate this rapidly developing market. Tony Tyler, director-general of the International Air Transport Association has called for tighter regulations to be put in place due to the “real and growing threat” of drones.

I suspect that drones are here to stay, and in many cases have benefitted a number of people such as in search and rescue operations. But, as their popularity increases and as the number of incidents grow, the policing and laws surrounding drones will inevitably become more necessary in the future. Accordingly a public consultation is due to take place, before a government strategy is published later this year.

But for now, as we await these changes, the next time you take your drone out for a spin, keep in mind the facts above to avoid finding yourself on the wrong side of the law.