Who’s Taking Responsibility for Dangerous Drones?

Sunday 2nd July saw another drone incident at a major UK airport. As a result of reports of a drone flying near to Gatwick Airport the runways were closed and flights were re-routed to alternative airports. Luckily there was only minor disruption to Gatwick’s activities and although it caused lots of inconvenience to a lot of people no-one was hurt or injured.

The media and public were quick to condemn the pilot of the drone (or drones), and once more it raised the spectre of a drone collision with a commercial airliner. Steve Landells, a flight safety specialist with the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) said in a statement released on 2nd July, “Yet another incident at Gatwick involving drones shows that the threat of drones being flown near manned-aircraft must be addressed before we see a disaster.”

The potential disaster everyone in the media and general public appears to think likely to happen is that a drone will fly into the engine of an airliner followed by a catastrophic explosion which causes the plane to fall from the sky killing everyone on board. It’s never actually described in those terms but that’s exactly the image that “drone plane disaster” conjures and the media in general appear happy to promote that view.

The BALPA statement continues, “We believe a collision, particularly with a helicopter, has the potential be catastrophic.”, which seems unusual for inclusion within a statement when no helicopters were involved in the Gatwick incident.

The reason BALPA talk about helicopter drone collisions is because the CAA have for some time now been testing the results of drone collisions with aircraft engines. BALPA know full well that a drone collision with a jet won’t be catastrophic so they steer the statement towards helicopters instead. The likelihood of that scenario unfolding is even less likely than an airliner collision since the downdraft produced by a helicopter would knock any drone clear out of the sky.

Nevertheless drones can be dangerous when flown recklessly. As we’ve seen they can cause disruption to essential national infrastructure, they can cause damage to people and property and if one were to fly in the path of traffic on a motorway would likely cause significant disruption and potential loss of life. Who is therefore responsible and what is being done to reduce and prevent dangers to the public?


Person in Charge

An Australian MP filmed flying a drone from her balcony.

Ultimately it’s the person in charge (PiC) who’s responsible for all aspects of the drone flight. They need to be aware of the capabilities of their aircraft, its airworthiness, the rules of the airspace they will be flying in, the environmental factors and a host of other elements such as the owner of the land they wish to fly from. The legal responsibility of the PiC is to ensure that the drone is flown safely and legally. All drone operations in the UK are covered under the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) 2016 Air Navigation Order (ANO) which can be found here.

The difficulty posed by the ANO is its vague wording. For instance it states that drones fitted with cameras operated by non-commercial pilots must not be flown, “over or within 150 metres of any congested area”. To help clarify its meaning the CAA issued an Information Notice in November 2014 stating that:

“A ‘Congested Area’ is defined in Article 255 of the Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2009. The definition states that a ‘Congested Area’ means any area in relation to a city, town or settlement which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes.”

The 2016 ANO continues this definition stating in its interpretation section, ““Congested area” in relation to a city, town or settlement, means any area which is substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational purposes;”

Substantially used for residential, industrial, commercial or recreational activities therefore means any area that you can reasonably expect to find people living, working or relaxing. In practical terms this means that you can only fly a drone 150m away from where people live, work or frequent.

You can’t fly your drone from your back garden, you can’t fly it at the local park, or at the local beach. You can only realistically fly your drone in the countryside provided that you have permission from the landowner of your take-off and landing spot.

This law has been in force for several years, even before the recent surge in popularity of low cost ready to fly drones, yet most drone owners don’t realise the restrictive nature of it.

Another area of the ANO where the wording is vague refers to the maximum altitude you can fly a drone. The CAA state, “if your drone weighs more than 7kg, additional rules apply if you fly in certain types of airspace and you must not fly above 400ft above the surface”. This seems to imply that if your drone is below 7kg in weight you can fly it as high as you like provided that you maintain direct unaided visual contact with it. However if you check the CAA’s Drone Code it states, “Stay below 400ft (120m) to comply with the Drone Code”.

There is without a doubt a degree of confusion surrounding the interpretation of the laws that apply to drone use and the expectation that amateur drone pilots will be fully aware of their implications is clearly wrong. For example nowhere in the Drone Code does it mention that you need the land owners permission to take off or land. It also doesn’t mention that on the CAA’s simplified information page for recreational drone users.

Every time a negative article appears in the media about drone use the point of blame is predominantly the person flying the drone, but are the regulators or manufacturers also to blame for their own lack of clarity?


The Regulators

Civilian operations within UK airspace are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and they, as their name would suggest, “oversee and regulate all aspects of civil aviation in the UK”. Drone operations are covered in general under the Air Navigation Order 2016 and in more detail by Civil Aviation Publication (CAP) 722.

Whilst the CAA was the first aviation authority in the world to formalise civilian drone usage into its legal framework the wording is at times cumbersome and confusing. For this reason they’ve sought to keep up with the surge in demand for information on the legality of drones by creating the Drone Code.

The Drone Code is a very simplified set of rules that the CAA stipulate all amateur drone operators must follow and it covers the following 6 points:

  • Always keep your drone in sight
  • Keep below 400ft
  • Always follow the drone manufacturers instructions
  • Stay 50m away from people & properties (30m on takeoff and landing) and 150 m away from crowds and built up areas
  • You are legally responsible for each flight
  • Stay well away from aircraft, airports, and airfields

They go on to state, “Follow these simple steps to make sure you are flying safely and legally.”

The CAA has tried adopting a light-touch approach to regulation that in the most part works well for commercial operators, although at times it still seems overly restrictive. The problem they have with this style of approach to amateur operators is that they appear to be giving somewhat confusing and misleading information.

For instance commercial operators have a specified distance for their line of sight operations – no further than 500m unless you have an extended line of sight permission. It is perfectly possible to fly beyond this distance and still have the drone in your sight, so it appears that commercial operators can fly no further than 500m, but amateurs with no training or insurance can fly as far as their eyes can see.

The other problem is that ‘congested areas’ have been replaced with ‘built-up areas’ which gives the impression that provided you are outside of a city you can fly. This means that amateur drone operators living in a town or village would think it’s fine to fly their drone from their back garden.

There is also no mention that you need the landowners permission to take off or land on their property, so you can go and visit a stately home and think it perfectly fine to launch your drone in their grounds to take some quick photos or videos. However as a CAA spokesperson said in an interview with Amateur Photographer magazine, “As you would expect, if an unmanned aircraft is operating from private land (ie, taking off and landing), then the permission of the land owner would be required.”

The important thing to understand here is that although the Drone Code is issued by the CAA and promoted to everyone as soon as they purchase a drone, it doesn’t nullify the Air Navigation Order. It means that pilots can be operating according to the Drone Code, yet in violation of the actual law and subject to possible arrest and prosecution.

Other very important areas of flight safety seem purposefully vague. Take for example their explanation about airports – the advice is to, “stay well away”, and the illustration shows a drone flying across the path of an airliner. Just how far away is ‘well away’?

According to the illustration you could be forgiven for thinking it means to stay a good 500m away from the outer perimeter of an airport. Now consider the incident that closed Gatwick’s runways twice on Sunday 2nd July. They were closed due to reports of a drone flying in the vicinity of the airport – how far away was it?

Gatwick’s Air Traffic Zone (ATZ) extends to 2.5 nautical miles from the centre of its main runway. This is heavily controlled airspace that requires all aircraft within it to have permission to be there from Gatwick’s Air Traffic Control (ATC). Drones under 7kg however are exempt from this rule according to the CAA:

“operators of drones weighing 7 kg or less are not required to have the permission of Air Traffic Control (even when flying within Controlled Airspace or within an ATZ)”

In practical terms this means that a drone under 7kg can fly as close as it wants to the perimeter of Gatwick Airport without breaking the law provided that they are, “reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made”.

The CAA do however go on to warn drone pilots that, “drones of any weight could present a particular hazard when operating near an aerodrome or other landing site due to the presence of manned aircraft.  Operators of small drones are therefore strongly advised to remain clear of charted aerodromes by at least a distance of 5 km”

Bearing this in mind it can be argued that whilst the pilot of the drone should have been more sensible and not flown it within 5km of Gatwick they were nevertheless acting within the law and following the Drone Code. It can also be argued that it was Gatwick’s choice to suspend flights and divert them and any complaints about inconvenience should be levelled at Gatwick.

Clearly though the regulations are not fit for purpose in this regard. We can’t realistically have a situation where plane enthusiasts are flying drones around the outside of an airport to get better photos of planes taking off and landing, it would cause utter chaos.

The public also need clearer guidance on what the rules are and where drones can be flown. If the regulations are confusing for pilots then the police officers who will be called to respond to drone incidents will have little chance to avoid accusations of either unlawful arrest or not taking enough action.

This confusion surrounding drone regulations is a hallmark of the fact the technology is moving so quickly. The result of this is that manufacturers are driving the development of the field and agencies are trying desperately to keep up. Although the regulators are lacking in their ability to ensure safe and effective drone management they are hamstrung by limited resources and an aggressive well-resourced lobby group of manufacturers. In this regard how much responsibility do the developers of the technology have?


The Manufacturers

Everyone, including the regulators have been amazed and taken off guard by the speed at which drones have developed and the dramatic fall in their cost. When DJI released the Phantom 2 Vision drone in October 2013 it cost less than £1,000 and offered unrivaled stability and ease of flight. Compared to the Phantom 1 which was only released a few months earlier in January 2013 it also had a built-in camera.

July 2014 saw the introduction of the Phantom 2 Vision + which had an improved camera and for the first time a 3-axis stabilised gimbal. Smooth HD aerial footage was now in the reaches of anyone with £1,000 whereas previously you needed £10,000. Photographers and videographers were hooked and the money for further research and development started to flood into DJI’s bank accounts.

Before too long drones which had been confined to high end film and TV production companies were now in the hands of the public and their appetite rapidly became insatiable. DJI clearly saw two different major markets – videographers and the general public, and so started to split their R&D. Although they also expanded further into agricultural and industrial applications they knew the cash cow was the general public, so they pushed for smaller and more capable drones.

Marketing still for DJI’s new drone the Spark

DJI’s most recent development is the Spark drone which features pocket sized portability and the functionality to launch from, and land back into, the palm of your hand. With the smaller size the price had also been lowered meaning that the Spark retails for around £500 in the UK.

The idea behind the Spark is to give consumers what they want irrespective of any legislation governing drones and it exemplifies DJI’s attitude to aviation laws. They don’t wait for the law to develop or catch up, they use the market to force the legislation to change.

If you take a look at the marketing for the Spark you’ll see it operated within built up areas with no awareness of the airspace or other air users, or even the proximity of other members of the public. It’s being sold to people as a selfie stick without the stick.

The features include hand motion control so you don’t have to be bothered with a cumbersome control unit. You can set it to track you automatically without even having to look at it, and forget about land owners permission because you can just launch it from your hand. So here we have a drone designed to be pulled out on a whim and launched with no awareness of other people, used as quickly and thoughtlessly as you’d use your phone to take a selfie.

The issue however is that it’s not a selfie stick, it’s an aircraft weighing just 300g with a top speed of 31mph. It can be operated from up to 2km away, can fly for 16 minutes, and reach altitudes of 4,000m or just over 13,000ft. When all goes well it’s a harmless piece of plastic fun, but if it flies off on its own (as DJI drones have been known to) it’s a lithium ion battery flying at 31mph anywhere up to 13,000ft.

New owners will of course be given the mandatory card explaining about the Drone Code, but after spending £500 on something they’ve been told is a selfie drone they can use anywhere are they going to make sure they only fly it away from congested areas and 50m away from buildings and people?

DJI know very well that the Spark is designed and marketed in direct contradiction to the spirit of the UK’s aviation laws, but they’re not bothered. They are trying to force the regulators to introduce an exemption for drones of this size and weight and they do so knowing that the CAA hasn’t got the resources to do anything about it.

As much as BALPA may lobby MPs to increase drone regulation they’re small fry compared to the pro-drone lobbyists such as The Small UAV Coalition and the Drone Manufacturers Alliance. In the US in 2015 Amazon spent over $10 million lobbying Washington while Google’s parent company, Alphabet, spent over $16.6 million. You only have to look at the exceptional freedom Amazon have been given to trial drone deliveries in the UK to work out they’re spending a lot of money buying political influence over here too.

BALPA tweet showing support from an MP

The manufacturers know that the people they need to influence are the politicians and to do that it’s just a matter of money. DJI, Google, and Amazon are literally swimming in money, so there are no limits as to where they will take the technology.

The media love to portray the negative aspects of drones and blame rogue pilots, but the truth is that the manufacturers are much more to blame.

They actively lobby against drone regulation and they market drones to the public as if there was no regulation to consider. That’s why the CAA has simplified their advice because they’re overwhelmed by drones and know that any legislation is practically unenforceable. They don’t have the resources to investigate drone incidents, so they passed that role onto the Police, who are themselves struggling with deep cuts to funding.

Going back to the Gatwick incident you can see how impractical the present situation is. Gatwick airport notified the police of a brightly coloured drone flying in the vicinity of the airfield runways not once, but on two occasions on July 2nd, at 6:10pm and again at 6:36pm.

They not only have police stationed at the airport they were also the site of Sussex Police’s drone testing so you would hope they still have an active drone unit on site. Despite all of those local resources they didn’t manage to catch the person operating the drone and have no idea who they are or where they went.

If a member of the public reports a drone they will have to wait quite a while longer for a police response. The officer arriving will have to know enough about the legislation to decide if the drone is likely to be breaking the Air Navigation Order. Then they’ll need to track down the suspect and question them. Given those conditions how effective is the present legislation and enforcement?


In Conclusion

I started this article with the question, “Who’s taking responsibility for dangerous drones”, and it’s clear the answer is no-one. The media, despite being one of the major users of drone technology, is keen to foist all of the blame onto the pilots or operators of drones, but they’re often just following the instructions they’ve been given by the regulators.

Regulations are being relaxed to allow Amazon to fly delivery drones

The regulators are in a mess, they’re overworked, under resourced and fail to clearly educate the public about drones. They seem incapable of introducing tighter regulations, knowing they face a battle with lobbyists and an impossible enforcement environment.

If anything, the Drone Code is indicating that they’re rolling back legislation, easing off on the previous interpretation of congested areas and ignoring landowner permissions.

The manufacturers should be taking responsibility, but in an atmosphere of easily influenced politicians and a market desperate for more they know full well that they don’t have to. They now control the pace and direction that regulation will take. In a few years Amazon will be operating long distance remote delivery drones and your neighbours will be flying their drones over your back garden. It shouldn’t happen, but it will because no-one is willing to stop it.

Ultimately it’s the public that will have to take responsibility for dangerous drones. They will have to accept that they’re here and that they’ll be as commonplace as cars. In terms of the dangers, the accidents and the consequences, they’ll just have to put up with that as another part of 21st century living. A small price to pay for aerial selfies and the convenience of drone deliveries.

Personally I feel that there should be some increased legislation to control amateur drone use, but it’s highly unlikely. The bare minimum is the introduction of mandatory drone registration, which is why we created a change.org petition.

Even then the public will is weak, people prefer to simply feel outrage, complain and forget until next time. My prediction therefore is that we will continue this media cycle of mock hysteria as drones become more prevalent while the regulations gradually dissolve further. When another drone causes a problem the finger will simply point at the rogue pilot, the idiot, the fool, yet never at the manufacturers, regulators or politicians.

Without a doubt drones are here to stay and if you think the present surge is too much it’s just the beginning. In no time at all the skies will be very busy with drones and the general aviation community appears to have no say in this at all. The regulators seem to be admitting defeat and the politicians are being led by the industry.


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