Drones: a rise in near-misses and an increased government focus

27 January 2017

The news worthy of a front-page Evening Standard spread this week was the rise in near-misses between drones and passenger planes. This rise in ‘airprox’ instances (situations in which it is considered an aircraft’s safety may have been compromised) went from 6 in 2014, 29 in 2015 to over 50 in 2016. A significant number of these were categorised as situations involving a ‘serious risk of collision’.

The numbers are not particularly surprising however. Whilst the law, set out under the new Air Navigation Order 2016, explains what you can and cannot do when flying your drone it is not the easiest to follow. It is therefore unsurprising that users – who are rapidly increasing in their number – might be unaware of the limitations and mistakenly fly their drones straight into an airprox report.

That is why the CAA produced its ‘Drone Code’ to help keep the user within the rules. NATS, the UK’s main air traffic control provider, has also created the ‘Drone Assist' app which details areas to avoid. Further, the current CAA competition  for the best photo/video of the British countryside captured on a drone no higher than 400ft (the recommended highest point), is specifically designed to increase compliance awareness (deadline 31 January 2017).

The need to advance this technology whilst keeping safety concerns at bay is challenging, an issue the Department for Transport’s (“DfT”) 2016 consultation seeks to address closes 15 March 2017). The proposals include: mandatory guidance to be provided at the point of sale/drone activation; imposing a knowledge/situational awareness test; and reducing the complexity of the laws to assist understanding. Registration is clearly attractive to the DfT (a mechanism already discussed by the House of Lords – see previous blog here and a digital identification system for all drones is envisaged. Whilst ideas surrounding the creation of an automated drone traffic management system are addressed, it is clear that this ‘Unmanned Traffic Management’ (“UTM”) system is going to take some time.

The consultation also questions whether breaches of the law are fuelled by the users seeing enforcement as unlikely or penalties so low the risk worth taking. There are of course already offences under the Air Navigation Order 2016 which carry the penalty of a fine or imprisonment. Further, with no proposals for what offences might be suitable or what additional penalties might be appropriate, it is not known what the government thinks might be necessary. It may well be however that with the push for greater public knowledge, the mandatory provision of guidance, user identification (through registration and/or electronic monitoring) and effective geofencing, drone owners will be alive to the restrictions placed on them and the need for extra deterrents will soon become obsolete.

For now however, an awareness of the existing law remains key. We wait to see what developments the future holds.

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