2018 has without a doubt been a dark year for the fledgling commercial drone industry in the UK. Numerous reports of drones being used for carrying drugs into prisons, and then finally there was the Gatwick incident in Dec 2018. Many in the drone industry debated about “The Event”, most commercial operators believed “the event” would be when the first person in the UK was killed by a commercial or hobby drone. I don’t think anyone envisaged about an incident, such as the one that took place at Gatwick airport.
The media continues to fuel the publics fear of drones, some reporting specifically designed to make the headlines, which I guess is what sells newspapers and linked advertising. There are few good drone news stories reported, and of which there are many more, but guess they don’t make as good a headline.
Even before Gatwick, most commercial drone operators had already seen a backlash from some members of the public. Pilots were frequently being portrayed as anti-social and at times felt like pariahs. Being a drone operating lately also meant you needed good skills in conflict resolution as a result. The public is now more inclined to report drone flights to the police, even totally legal flights made by hobbyists or commercial operators. Commercial operators are spending more and more time liaising with the Police as a result, wasting considerable time and money on both sides. Drones are very polarising, you either love or hate them, however you cannot argue that they bring numerous commercial and safety advantages over manned aviation, or traditional high-risk high-level access methods etc.
One area that frequently comes up with interaction with the public is privacy, again scaremongering by the press has raised the concern. Let’s be clear, the vast majority of drones cannot look in windows, and if they did you would certainly hear them, yet this is a topic that comes up again and again. The rules with respect to privacy is no different from photography by those using a camera phone, the later of which you are much more likely to be filmed with. You have a reasonable right to privacy in your back garden, but the the law is quite clear, a drone with camera should not be getting within 50m of your back garden, or 150m for those without UK CAA permission. Note: A drone without a camera or other data capture device does not have the same restrictions.
As commercial operators we frequently notify the Police when we are flying in urban or high-risk areas, even though legally we have no obligation to do so. This has resulted in increased scrutiny from the Police, requests for additional information, and sometimes discussions which end in the operations not being undertaken due to their concerns with the threat of prosecution. This happens even though the flights could have been made legally under the Air Navigation Order, (ANO). The frustration for legal commercial operators is they feel that the focus from the Police is all wrong, if an operator is calling them to let them know where they are operating, it is unlikely they would fly illegally. Yet we see day in and day out, recreational drone pilots posting highly illegal flights on YouTube, or those without UK CAA permissions undertaking commercial operations. All of these taking place with very few convictions or actions against those involved. There is a huge frustration amongst the commercial operators at the lack of action from the UK CAA and Police with regard to drone pilots operating commercially, without insurance or UK CAA Permission. No new laws are needed to prosecute these individuals, it is already clear what legislation they are breaching, and the Police have the powers to take action now.
The most recent nail in the coffin for many drone businesses has been the focus on commercial operators who businesses are located near Gatwick by the Police. We understand the need by the Police to investigate every lead possible, but targeting commercial operators seems like a witch hunt to some. After all commercial operators are the only drone operators currently registered with the UK CAA. While most would agree that drone registration planned for all drones over 250g in November 2019 is a great idea, you can’t help being concerned, that had this been available prior to the Gatwick incident then they would have been targeted by the security services. It has been reported on numerous occasions that those wishing to use a drone nefariously wont register their drones in the first place.
So where does this all leave the UK drone industry?
Most would agree it’s at a precarious state, calls for further knee jerk legislation in the UK could hamper and hinder the fledgling industry before its even got started. Most commercial operators already feel that the current legislation is too restrictive for businesses to take advantage of drone technology, even without any additional legislation. The global revenue market for drones is expected to reach £9 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. If the UK wants a slice of this opportunity, and is not to be left behind in the development and R&D, then it needs to think hard on how is manages these risks going forward, and this all needs done in a supporting way, rather than making commercial drone use more restrictive.
As an industry we need to get to the bottom of what happened at Gatwick quickly. Was there a drone? there is much online speculation that there wasn’t one. There certainly was enough technology deployed that should have identified a drone. Some also find it strange today that few definitive images or video has surfaced of the alleged drones.
About the author: Craig Jump is leading drone consultant, with over 7 years drone / UAV flying experience. He holds UK CAA permissions for fixed and rotary wing drones and is a UK CAA NQE Instructor and flight assessor. He is Security Cleared, Disclosure Scotland Checked and provides anti drone and drone security consultancy services.