Industry responds to UK government drone proposals

The aviation industry has responded to new proposals from the UK Government on drone use, including new police powers and expanded airport restriction zones.

The news will be particularly salient as the UK saw a second drone incident within a month earlier this week, with Heathrow Airport briefly suspending departures on Tuesday 8 January due to a reported drone sighting. In December drone disruption at Gatwick Airport also led to the suspension of flights between the 19th and 20th of December, with the airport re-opening the runway on the 21st.

In a statement to Parliament, the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, announced the publishing of the Government’s response to the ‘Taking flight: the future of drones in the UK’ consultation, which ran from 26 July 2018 to 17 September 2018, and received over 5,000 responses.

“Today’s measures set out the next steps needed to ensure that drones are used in a safe and secure way and that the industry is accountable,” Grayling said. “At the same time these steps will ensure that we harness the benefits that drones can bring to the UK economy.”

He added that the drone disruption in December at Gatwick airport was a “stark example of why we must continue to ensure drones are used safely and securely in the UK.”

The measures include introducing new police powers, which will allow police to request evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed, and enabling police to issue fixed penalty notices for minor drone offences.

Grayling continued: “We must also ensure that the most up-to-date technology is available to detect, track and potentially disrupt drones that are being used illegally, so we have also consulted on the further use of counter-drone technology. Those consultation responses will now be used by the Home Office to develop an appropriate means of using that technology in the UK.”

The Government introduced airport drone restriction measures in July 2018, barring drones from flying above 400 feet and within 1km of protected airport boundaries, but through the consultation airlines and airports requested amendments to the current rules to better protect the landing and take-off paths of aircraft.

Grayling said the government has been working with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and NATS to develop the “optimum” exclusion zone to help meet those requirements, and will introduce additional protections around airports, with a particular focus on protected exclusion zones from runway ends, alongside increasing the current aerodrome traffic zone restrictions around airports.

Drone pilots wishing to fly within these zones must gain permission from aerodrome air traffic control. The Air Navigation Order 2016 will be amended to implement these changes.

The government has also previously passed legislation that will mean from November all drone operators must register and all drone pilots complete a competency test.

“Drones are an exciting new technology that, if operated safely, can bring many benefits to aviation and the UK as a whole,” commented Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), “However, as the events at London Gatwick Airport have shown, drones have the potential to be very disruptive due to the risk they pose to civil aviation.

“It is welcome to see that the Government has listened to UK airports and will now extend the no-drone zones around airports to approximately 5km. Enforcement will be vital for these new rules to be effective and we look forward to working with the Home Office and the police on ensuring the right resources and technology is in place to support this.”

Dee added that the Government should now “move quickly” to introduce mandatory geo-fencing technology to safeguard critical airspace around airports from accidental drone incursions and allow airports, police and authorities to focus on “preventing the malicious use of drones.”

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) also welcomed the announcements, with BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton adding: “We were encouraged last year when the Government announced that it was introducing new laws, including the restriction zone and mandatory registration, but we were disappointed they didn’t go far enough, and could put drones in direct conflict with commercial aircraft. The Government’s announcement today is a win for flight safety.”

He added that the announcement that the Home Office will trial new counter-drone measures is also “key to ensuring the kind of threat we saw at Gatwick can be safely tackled.”

“We also welcome extra police powers to deal with irresponsible and dangerous drone use, including the power to force drone users to land their aircraft and show their documentation.

He added that the association would have liked the plans for drone registration, due to come into force in November, to have been accelerated.

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