Last year’s disruption at Gatwick airport is estimated to have cost over £50m. The incident points to the urgent need for significant action to ensure that drones are used safely and securely in the UK.
The government has begun to regulate the sector: it is currently an offence to endanger aircraft, drone pilots are not permitted to fly their drones near people or property, and drones must be kept within a visual line of sight.
Laws restricting drones from flying above 400ft across the UK and within 1km of protected airport boundaries were recently updated to extend no-fly zones around airports to 5km. It is also now a legal requirement for all drone operators to sign a register, and drone pilots must complete an online competency test.
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While these regulations are a good first step in protecting aircraft and the public from those unaware of the risk their drones could pose, there remains a lot of action to be taken to better safeguard the public and prevent another situation similar to the Gatwick chaos.
In order for airports, and other open or vulnerable spaces, such as sports grounds and prisons, to be safeguarded from drones, effective countermeasures will need to be put in place. These include monitoring technologies such as highly specialised drone-tracking radar, as well as technologies that are able to neutralise drones once they are detected.
The current issue with many of these drone-neutralising technologies, however, is that none are permitted due to existing regulations. Many also pose an increased electronic collateral damage risk at airports.
More effective geofencing could be built into drones to automatically prevent them from flying within protected areas. Electronic conspicuity devices could also be used, which would allow for the automatic identification of all airspace users – including drones.
In addition, the police need to be given more powers to request evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed. This could involve allowing police to issue fixed penalty notices for minor drone offences, allowing for better enforcement of drone regulations, and acting as a deterrent for drone misuse.
Ultimately, it is clear that the government needs to act to put in place more effective drone regulation and work alongside industry partners to defend the public from drone threats.
The Home Office must accelerate detailed policy work in order to develop an appropriate means to allow the expanded use of anti-drone technology in the UK. Meanwhile, the government needs to do more to educate the public about drone flying laws and policy.