Consultation on the Safe Use of Drones in the UK

Saturday 22nd July 2017 was a very busy day for the drone industry in the UK as it marked the headline catching release of a study into drone mid-air collisions, an announcement of tighter drone regulations, and also the publication of the Government’s response to its drone consultation.

The release of the mid-air collision study was designed to give maximum media impact and dramatic headlines scaring the public into thinking drones have been proven to be highly dangerous to aircraft. Given the fear, they would embrace the solution – tighter regulations.

It was delivered as a set-piece manoeuver and enacted with great marketing aplomb. It also distracted the media from the most important document the Department for Transport (DfT) released at the same time, their response to a consultation on drone use in the UK entitled, “Unlocking the UK’s High Tech Economy: Consultation on the Safe Use of Drones in the UK Government Response”.

The study into drone mid-air collisions has been widely criticised for lacking full data and poor methodology including strong experimenter bias and seeking to prove a pre-determined outcome (my own critique of it is here).

The consultation process on drone use in the UK lasted from 21st December 2016 through to 15th March 2017 and included responses from industry operators, manufacturers, and the general public. It examined nine proposals (each of which will be detailed below) looking at stimulating drone innovation and enterprise in the UK, ensuring safety and operation within the law, and laying the foundations for a developed drone market.

Most surprisingly the consultation process didn’t look at whether people were in favour of the UK adopting a drone delivery service such as Amazon Prime Air. It’s well known that this is in the advanced stages of testing in the UK and yet the public has never been given the opportunity to comment on this development. Instead the Government always steers the focus of discussion onto amateur drones users and the potential danger it believes is inherent in their uncontrolled access to the skies.

 

Proposal A – Testing Drones in the UK

This proposal looked at whether the UK should have more or fewer test sites. Given that most people are unaware that testing areas for drone technology exist in the UK it wasn’t surprising that this proposal didn’t result in a consensus opinion. Industry members agreed more sites would be needed, most people weren’t really bothered either way.

This was just intended as a warm-up question, as was the following one. Principally targeted at the industry users and aimed to get people limbered up for the main proposals which were positioned in the middle of the consultation.

 

Proposal B – Pilot Competency & Licensing (For Commercial Users Only)

If the public were starting to get excited they quickly turned off when they realised this section related just to commercial drone operators. The responses were fairly uncertain as to what if any new requirements might be required for commercial drone pilots and as such the Government decided not to implement any new standards.

 

Proposal C – Insurance

This is where the consultation response starts to get interesting because most responders thought that insurance should be required for drone operators. At present commercial operators are required by law to hold valid insurance, but leisure or hobbyist operators don’t. The response stated:

“As it is clear from responses that this policy area is not yet developed enough to merit a primary legislation proposal, the Government instead intends to launch with the CAA a ‘drone insurance project group’ to work together to more comprehensively explore the issues, develop solutions and implement best practice.”

This was also the first part of the report that introduced the results from the drone mid-air collision study. Under the sub-heading, “Safety research conclusions”, it stated:

“In making its decisions on these proposals, the Government has naturally considered the evidence and responses received during the consultation period, but it has also taken into account new evidence of safety risks received from a study jointly commissioned by the Department for Transport, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) and BALPA, the British Airline Pilots’ Association.”

The methodology for the consultation process by the DfT was therefore revealed to be a combination of responses to its consultation intertwined with its own separate research that was flawed and pre-determined. The public weren’t invited to consult on the methods used in the study and the DfT refuses to comment on it or release its full data.

This is clear evidence that the DfT wanted to ensure that the Government’s response to the consultation process would follow a pre-determined outcome. When they state that they in part commissioned the study what they fail to reveal is that they co-authored it, including its terms. The MAA is also part of the Government and BALPA are known for taking a strong stance against leisure use of drones.

To what degree this study was weighted against consultation responses from leisure drone users the DfT doesn’t reveal, however it’s certain that it was introduced to steer the Government’s response in a specific, controlled direction.

This study is cited several times throughout this response document and used to highlight dangers to aircraft posed by drones. It’s used to justify the need for legislation to mandate that all drone users above 250g are registered. However, despite the “proven drone collision threat” (BALPA), it doesn’t justify legislation to ensure drone users have insurance. This is an obvious contradiction.

If there is such a threat posed by drones that registration is required to be brought into UK law, why not insurance as well? Would it be logical to legally enforce car registration without insurance?

This is also the first indication of the true intention behind the Government’s push for registration. It’s not to do with safety or education, it’s for an entirely different reason.

 

Proposal D – Improving Leisure Drone User Awareness of the Law

The difficulty facing most leisure drone pilots is that the the law surrounding drone use is ridiculously complicated and confusing. It’s worded obscurely, for instance in referring to towns as congested areas, and is open to misinterpretation.

DJI’s Mavic Pro Drone

One of the most obvious examples of this relates to the rules of flight distances for drones under 7kg. If you’re a commercial drone pilot you’ve passed several exams, undertaken significant study and training, had your procedures approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and carry insurance. Yet despite this commercial operators are usually limited to flying their drone a maximum distance of 500m away from them horizontally and 400ft vertically.

If you’re a leisure pilot you can walk into a high street shop, buy the same drone and on the same day fly it as far away from you as you like provided that you can still see it. In practical terms this can easily be over 800m horizontally and 2,000ft vertically, depending on how good your eyesight is.

The lack of clarity surrounding the regulations are often to blame for many incidents involving leisure drone users, however the users are blamed, not the regulations. For example the incident where a drone was flown close to Gatwick Airport may have been a perfectly legal flight as described in this article. The pilot may well have been operating their drone within the law, but they get the blame along with every other leisure drone pilot in the UK.

This area of the consultation is perhaps one of the best aspects of this response in that the Government agree that the law may need revising to make it easier to understand and to make it safer. However, it also uses this area of the report to justify the need for legislation to register drone users. Rather than accepting the blame for producing inadequate legislation governing safe flight it instead pushes some of the blame onto the leisure users, stating:

“In particular, as laid out under Proposal G below in the ‘Laying the foundation for the future’ theme, the Government has decided to proceed with the implementation of a registration scheme for all users of drones of 250g and above in weight. It is the Government’s intention that registration be used as an opportunity to educate these drone users.”

CAA Drone Code Guidance

The Government’s proposals for changes to the law governing drone flights, the Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2016, come at the end of a lengthy list of decisions predominantly aimed at all users of drones. The level of importance it places on changing the ANO is much less than the importance it places on registration. It won’t even begin to look at changing the ANO until after mid-2018 when the EU will have updated its own rules. Any change will therefore take place far later, despite the fact the Government aims to leave EU jurisdiction by early 2019:

“The Government will plan to implement a fuller update to the Air Navigation Order 2016 drone clauses once the EU has set new rules in this area (currently expected around mid-2018). This is in order to implement all significant changes at once and give businesses clarity.”

This indicates that the Government’s primary intention is to introduce a registration scheme, not change the laws governing drone flights to make them easier to understand and adhere to.

 

Proposal E – Improving Deterrents

Many of the responses to this section questioned whether it would be effective to increase fines for drone misuse. Instead they favoured improving education, increasing the resources available for enforcement, publicising prosecutions more widely, and a better communication of the law and how to enforce it to the UK’s various police forces.

Despite this the Government chose to focus on looking at increasing fines for drone misuse and changing the ANO to ban all drones from flying near airports and above 400ft altitude.

Citing the safety concerns in the mid-air collision study the Government stated:

“The collisions study commissioned by the Department for Transport, Military Aviation Authority and pilots’ union, BALPA, showed that drones of extremely low weights can pose a significant risk to helicopters and small manned planes. The Government considers it vital therefore to reduce the likelihood of these two aircraft forms being in the same airspace together wherever possible.”

Whilst limiting all drones to a maximum height of 400ft is sensible it won’t ensure that they avoid coming into contact with other aircraft. As explained here, the greatest risk of collision is between a drone and a General Aviation (GA) aircraft as most GA windscreens are made from thin plastic.

The effect of anything colliding with a GA windscreen should not be understated as James A. Cowan, MBE, Chairman of the UK Civil Air Patrol explained to me:

“Something coming through the windscreen and hitting you in the face whilst flying at low level is bad enough.  But any distraction could cause the pilot to lose concentration and, in the blink of an eye, hit the ground whilst flying at low level.  For good reason military pilots wear flying helmets with two visors, one clear and one tinted, and the visor is kept down from take-off to landing.”

UK flights are mostly governed by the Standardised European Rules of the Air (SERA) which specifies a minimum height of 150m/500ft above the surface (land/water). However the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) permits an exception to this in the ANO 2016:

“The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) permits, under SERA.3105 and SERA.5005(f), subject to the condition set out in subparagraph (b), an aircraft to fly elsewhere than as specified in SERA.5005(f)(1) at a height of:

i) less than 150 metres (500 feet) above the ground or water; or

ii) less than 150 metres (500) above the highest obstacle within a radius of 150 metres (500 feet) from the aircraft.

b) The aircraft must not be flown closer than 150 metres (500 feet) to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure except with the permission of the CAA.”

Rather than keeping a minimum height of 150m/500ft above surface this exception allows pilots in the UK to fly aircraft 150m/500ft away from people, vessels, vehicles, or structures. This means that throughout the countryside it is permissible to fly aircraft at 250ft, well within the 400ft proposed drone height limit.

Therefore the Government’s conclusion that altering the ANO to limit all drones to a maximum height of 400ft will only make sense if they force the CAA to remove this exception to the SERA regulations.

Could this consultation report be the first warning to members of the GA community that the Government is planning to change the rules of the air for general aviation?

I happen to think so. I believe that this report is the strongest indicator yet that the Government is planning to change the landscape of the UK’s airspace for all users, not just drone pilots, so that they can give approval for drone delivery services. I believe that is a major aspect of the “high tech economy” they’re trying to unlock.

One of the most worrying aspects of the proposed changes to the ANO refers to a change in Police powers with regard to drones:

“Review and amend the powers available to law enforcement agencies to tackle breaches of the Air Navigation Order 2016 and criminality involving drones. This could include powers to require the production of registration and ID documents from drone users, to require a drone user land their drone, and to search for and seize a drone where there is a reasonable belief that a crime is about to take place or has taken place. “

On the whole this seems logical and acceptable. If the Police see a drone being flown and have received complaints you’d expect them to be able to ask the drone user to land the aircraft and prove that they’re legally allowed to operate it in that environment. It’s the last part that is far from reasonable when combined with the nature of the proposed register of drone users.

Drone Serial Number

The drone registration scheme I would support would be one where individual drones are registered. They all have unique serial numbers, that way if a drone crashes (or is captured) somewhere it can be traced back to its owner. This aids investigation of established criminality, such as drones being captured trying to fly contraband into prisons.

The registration scheme the Government’s proposing is entirely different – it registers a person as someone who is a drone user. The serial number or identifying information relating to that person’s drone isn’t registered, so if one crashes or is captured this system is useless.

It only becomes useful if, for instance, a drone is flown near an airport or into a prison (or some other scenario) and the Police when responding are unable to find the drone operator. They can then consult the list of registered drone users in the area and investigate each one as a possible suspect. They would have a “reasonable belief” the person on the register could be the pilot they’re looking for in which case they would have the power to “search for and seize a drone” in their residence.

As a result of the proposed registration system drone operators could find they are subject to Police interviews and having to divulge flight telemetry to prove their drone wasn’t responsible. This shifts the weight of responsibility significantly from the Police to investigate and identify the alleged criminal onto drone pilots to prove their innocence or face having their drones seized and inspected.

As it stands the proposed system of registering users along with enhanced Police powers to search for and seize drones has chilling ramifications for civil liberties and stands to further vilify drone users.

 

Proposal F – ‘No Drone Flying Zones’ and Enforcement

This is where we delve deeper into the direction the Government is seeking to travel with its drone regulations in the UK. The options presented in this proposal were about improving signage on the ground for restricted airspace and also to improve digital access to the information through an application (app) based system.

On the whole it seems that there’s nothing objectionable here so most respondents were in favour of the proposals. As a result the Government has chosen to push ahead with developing and distributing signage for ‘No Drone Flying Zones’ and it has also begun the process of implementing geo-fencing systems with drone manufacturers.

The geo-fencing project is called Project Chatham, which is most likely a nod to the Chatham House International Affairs Think Tank, and is set to begin work in the next 6 months. Geo-fencing is a system whereby GPS co-ordinates can be programmed into drones so that they won’t fly within them.

It’s fairly straightforward and has existed for quite a while already, however what the Government has in mind goes further than  existing systems. They are envisaging a system that is constantly updated and that drones can stay in touch with so that geo-fencing can take effect within minutes of a central register being updated. As they state:

“The Government views this project as one of the first steps in moving towards a dynamic drone traffic management system in the future.”

This is an important element of this report as it also marks the first time it makes direct reference to a ‘dynamic drone traffic management system’, the real reason for the report and proposed legislation.

 

Proposal G – Registration

This is where we’re into the very heart of the Government’s proposals to change the way drones operate in the UK.

“The Government laid out that it was minded to introduce a registration scheme, envisaging that such a scheme would improve the accountability of drone users, aid enforcement and enable direct educational targeting of these users in order to improve safety, security and privacy.”

In this proposal the Government was asking specifically about a registration scheme for drones and it yielded positive responses in general. They asked about the weight above which drones should be registered and the dominant view was that it should apply only to drones above 1kg.

Despite this the Government decided that it should implement a registration scheme for all drones over 250g, citing their own scientifically unreliable study as justification for this. They also chose to register people, not their drones in the soon to be mandatory registration scheme.

Both of these aspects deserve greater public debate as the purpose of a public consultation is to take into account public opinion, not to cherry pick those opinions that support your own predetermined agenda. At this point all pretense of public consultation is lost and the Government is using it’s own bad science and opinion to force through legislation it has no mandate for.

In addition the Government also intends to charge drone owners for the scheme:

“It is highly likely that there will be a charge for registration, just as there are charges for undertaking mandatory requirements when you own a car. The Government does not believe it appropriate for the taxpayer to fund the costs of regulating drones, as not everybody owns one. The basis of the charge would be to cover the cost of running the scheme.”

This seems reasonable to the non-drone owning public, but this scheme will apply to all drones over 250g. Professional drone operators already pay a yearly fee for their licence and will now have to pay for registering drones that are already registered to their insurance. Leisure users will already have paid £100 – £600 in VAT on the drone which could be put towards the scheme the Government is so keen to force on the market.

Whatever you think about registration in general this proposal is starting to appear that the Government is pushing an agenda on the market that it will force them to accept and expect them to pay for with very little justification.

In terms of education they could mandate manufacturers to provide educational materials bundled with the drone itself as most already do. They could improve the clarity of the legislation and make a better effort to inform people of it.

Education needs to be targeted at the general public, not specifically at drone users. There is already so much fear arisen through misinformation and ignorance that they need to go further to de-escalate the tensions. Instead they heighten the tensions to justify a stronger regulatory stance and present this as helping to educate drone users. Clearly the ‘unlocking’ this report refers to isn’t the leisure market.

 

Proposal H – Electronic Identification

This proposal once more sees the Government agree with responses that confirm their own agenda and ignore those responses that don’t.

GA Transponder

The first aspect of the proposal looked at some form of in-flight identifications system similar to the transponder system in airliners. There’s already work underway by DJI to use technology that exists in most drones to enable it to transmit a local signal to identify it to law enforcement. This isn’t what the Government wants though as that doesn’t enable them to introduce a national automated drone traffic management system, so they state:

“The Government is working towards an international consensus on an electronic identification product standard, which it expects will be put in place over the next few years. In the meantime, the Government proposed exploring the option of mandating the use of an app to notify pre-flight an intention to fly a drone in a particular geographical location.”

As the Government is already working on this they chose to carry on working on it internationally. The surprise was in relation to the pre-flight app.

Questions were raised about its effectiveness given poor 3G/4G coverage in rural areas, how it could be implemented effectively and made enforceable. Despite this the Government stated it is:

“minded to pursue further the option of mandating use of an app further and will begin by undertaking further scoping and exploration of the idea with industry. The Government may also consider if this measure could be extended to allow implementation of other requirements, such as registration and education, also through the means of the same app, to reduce burden on drone users.”

If we go back to the section on insurance, the Government wasn’t minded to mandate drones having insurance cover despite all of the risks it claimed had been proven by its own collision study. Now however it feels there is justification for a mandatory app that people must use before flying a drone.

They also want to see how this can be integrated with a registration scheme to “reduce the burden on drone users”.

Here then we have the real reason for the consultation process, collision study, and report. The Government wants to implement a registration scheme tied to a pre-flight app that is enshrined in legislation. This means that before flying a drone you have notified a central database of your personal details, location, time of flight, and the time you stopped flying.

It seems an excellent idea to improve safety and almost seamless provided that you ignore the fact we have certain civil liberties. This is the equivalent of proposing a system to make the roads safer by mandating that every car has a sat-nav and into that sat-nav you have to enter your personal details and keep a central database updated whenever you drive anywhere.

If such a system was proposed there would be a mass outcry from motoring organisations, car manufacturers, the media, and civil liberty groups. However, because we’re talking about drones and because the media and organisations such as BALPA have presented them time and again as extremely dangerous there’s very little push back against this.

 

Proposal I – Drone Traffic Management

The very last proposal ties together all of the Government’s strands into its vision for the future of drones in the UK. This is the reason it’s pushing so hard for a step-change in drone usage. It’s not about education or public safety, it’s about the development of a Drone Traffic Management System (DTMS) to enable services such as Amazon delivery drones to operate.

The actual responses to the proposal of a DTMS showed only a general approval in principle, “a number thought that such a system was unnecessary, that the need for such a system had not been proven or that there would never be sufficient drone numbers to require one.”

There was also a lot of resistance from model aircraft pilots and leisure drone pilots feeling this would adversely affect their hobby. Nevertheless the report stated:

“Following this consultation, the Government remains convinced that a drone traffic management system will be the best way of replicating and ensuring the high safety standards currently applied to manned aviation. The Government will therefore continue pursuing the development of a drone traffic management system, in collaboration and consultation with industry and international partners, using the responses and overall indications for future direction received during consultation.”

Why is the Government so strongly convinced on areas that lack public conviction? The answer is in the next paragraph of the report:

“The Government has laid out in this response its intention to implement several measures that are integral to the running of a future drone traffic management system – such as registration and processes for issuing geo-fencing data. As these are such key prongs of a drone traffic management system, the Government will seek to ensure that these measures are implemented in a future-thinking way.”

If you were still of the belief that this consultation process was about safety, education, or privacy this final paragraph of the report undermines that belief entirely.

Registration is “integral to the running of of future drone traffic management system”.

Geo-fencing is “integral to the running of of future drone traffic management system”.

“As these are such key prongs of a drone traffic management system, the Government will seek to ensure that these measures are implemented in a future-thinking way.”

 

Conclusion

As mentioned previously this report was released on the same day as the study into mid-air drone collisions, the announcement of the need for tighter regulations, and BALPA’s call for immediate action on the “proven drone collision threat”.

As such most people would never read this report, would have no idea of the Government’s plans for the future of UK airspace, and would simply agree to the idea of registration and regulation because of safety fears.

Even throughout this report the Government repeatedly present safety concerns and a wish to educate drone users as its motivation for registration and regulation, yet the real intention is to create an airspace environment that is required by companies such as Google and Amazon.

Amazon Prime Air

In order for Amazon to develop its drone delivery service, Amazon Prime Air, they require the UK to create an automated drone traffic management system (DTMS). They also need this to be enforced and regulated through Government legislation.

The reason they need this type of DTMS is that even when drones are equipped with sense and avoid technology there is no guarantee that they will be able to fly remotely and autonomously without hitting other drones or aircraft. Sensing and avoiding a fixed object is one thing, but sensing and avoiding a drone travelling at 70mph towards you is beyond the capabilities of the technology Amazon plan on using.

For this reason they need to be able to know where other drone users are and when they’re there, but if it’s a voluntary scheme they can’t rely on it. Therefore the UK Government is intending to introduce legislation that makes it illegal for anyone to fly a drone without notifying a central database of where they are.

Initially it will be rolled out as a “safety and education” initiative to make the skies safer because drones are so dangerous to other aircraft. The reality is that it’s not about other aircraft, it’s about masses of Amazon Prime Air drones filling the skies.

The sheer genius of this approach is that is vilifies drone users and forces them to pay for the development of a scheme that the Government will then sell access to. Amazon will have to pay to get access to the DTMS, and at some point in the future leisure users may be restricted from flying as priority is given to Amazon drones.

Imagine the scenario where you’ve passed your safety training, registered yourself on the app, and probably paid a subscription to it as well. You then head out to fly, perform all your pre-flight checks, log in to the app and push the button to begin flying only to find that you can’t because an Amazon Prime Air drone is scheduled to fly through that region soon. Or mid-flight, your drone initiates a return to home function that you can’t override as an Amazon Prime Air drone is heading through that area.

This isn’t about safety. This is about locking the UK airspace and selling its access to the highest bidder, and don’t think this will only apply to drones.

If the CAA are told to scrap the SERA height exemption all General Aviation flights would be banned from flying below 500ft unless they were coming in to land or take off.

This is why the mid-air collision study didn’t test engines, main rotors, or use any live tail rotor tests. They’re simply not bothered about the results of those tests because they needed just enough information to show that drones could be dangerous. That sliver of proof, no matter how polluted the science behind it, meant that they could force through the “key prongs” needed for a drone traffic management system.

What the public were never asked was, “Do you want the skies filled with delivery drones?”.

 

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