There are already laws covering the safety of drones yet we continue to see breaches of the law happen. As laid out in previous blogs, this is likely due to a large proportion of small drone leisure users being unaware of the law. However, there may also be a minority of drone users who are breaking the law because they feel they won’t be caught, or feel that the penalties are low enough to make it worth the risk.
Current rules and penalties include:
A person convicted of recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft could be punished by an unlimited fine or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or both.
A person convicted of recklessly or negligently causing or permitting a drone to endanger any person or property could be punished by an unlimited fine or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both.
A person can be fined up to £2.5k if convicted of breaking the rules set out in the Air Navigation Order, such as:
Users must not fly drones with cameras within 50m of any vehicle, structure or person without permission
Users must not fly drones over or within 150m of any congested area or large crowds of people without permission.
Users must not fly drones above 400ft or within certain categories of airspace without permission if the drone weights more than 7kg.
The Government is exploring several options laid out in Proposal D for improving drone leisure user awareness of the law, but a potential option could also be to increase the level of penalties. The Government is also considering whether the new nature of drone activity means that the legislation already in place is not sufficient in covering all types of negative misuse of drones. If so, then the Government could consider amending already existing legislation to cover this activity, or even create a new offence for such activity in order to deter and address misbehaviour.
We feel that enforcement is the key here, not necessarily the punishment. At present reckless operators fly poorly thinking that the system will not investigate, catch or prosecute them. Rogue operators also fly for hire and reward under the same belief of being invincible. It does not matter what the penalty is if there is no resource available to catch and prosecute. If penalties are to be increased then police resources have to increase to match the rise in illegal use. Politicians must not just say they are tough on illegal drone use because they have raised the penalties. The means to monitor and catch illegal operators must go hand-in-hand.
No Drone Flying Zones and Enforcement
There are already aviation safety rules and restrictions in place in the UK which prohibit the flying of aircraft, including drones, over certain structures and people on a permanent or temporary basis. Drone users with cameras on their drones must also fly at least 50m away from people and also from vehicles, vessels, and structures that are not under the control of the person flying the drone. Drones with cameras must also not be used to overfly or fly within 150m of congested areas or large crowds of people, unless they have a permission issued by the CAA to do so. Drones weighing over 7kg must also not generally be flown above 400ft in height. In addition to complying with the aviation-specific rules, a drone user must also fly their drone at a height which is reasonable in all circumstances to avoid a potential claim for trespass or nuisance. See our blog on trespass law.
The CAA and Secretary of State for Transport have legal powers to protect key infrastructure such as nuclear power stations, prisons, key royal residences and parts of central London. Some of these restrictions can be temporary, for example all flying was prohibited in and over central London whilst President Obama visited, and others are permanent restrictions. These restrictions are communicated by the CAA, and the Police monitor compliance and prosecute breaches.
At a local level, local authorities often have the power to set bylaws which can be adapted to regulate the use of drones in a park or other areas within the authority’s jurisdiction. Private landowners, such as the National Trust, may also set their own rules for drone use on their land. Again, see our blog on trespass law.
The Government believes more needs to be done to enforce the current flying restrictions, given the breaches of drone flying restrictions that are occurring and may increase in future. The Government has already begun this work with the CAA’s education campaign for drone users, which is raising awareness of the rules, and by reaching out to manufacturers to explore options for geo-fencing. Unless a drone operator is trained to look for no drone flying zones then they will continue to ignore them through ignorance. Training and education is the key. All of the Government proposals will come to nothing without the correct training provision. This may not need to be formal training delivered by an NQE but it must be comprehensive with respect to the rules. Once training has been undertaken by compulsory legislation the operator can have no excuse for non-compliance.
The Government is asking us to comment on 2 options:
Working with stakeholders to better communicate on the ground where flying restrictions apply, such as around airports and prisons, as ‘No Drone Flying Zones’. This could include designing and issuing standardised ‘No Drone Flying Zone’ or drone flying restriction signs for use by public bodies and organisations.
Making information of flying restrictions more readily available and accessible to drone users, working with industry to do so, and encouraging the development of apps to alert drone users to nearby restricted flying zones. If the registration of drones were implemented, drone users could also receive updates about flying restrictions relating to specific geographical areas through this process.