Can the chaos at London airports from drone sightings be used as a prompt to encourage action on the long-debated topic of drone regulation? The July 2018 Flying High report by UK innovation champion Nesta, showed that the UK was a global leader in drone technology, but progress in the rapid development of the sector since 2010 had been held back by weak UK regulation. Controversy about drone regulation has many parallels with other transport regulation. An effective approach to drone regulation could illuminate the way forward for other transport and technology.
DfT's 2016 consultation on the safe use of drones noted that the UK has been successful in attracting drone specialists, manufacturers and operators partly due to its approach to legislation. In 2018 a follow up consultation made specific proposals for drone flight restrictions, information about drone use, police powers, penalties and enforcement methods. In January 2019 the latest government response suggests cautious next steps based on "an agile approach, working with industry and other partners, to help ensure that the regulation supports and anticipates future innovation whilst keeping people safe".
Joint working between government and industry has not been one of the traditional strengths of UK transport delivery, with more adversarial approaches like franchising or competition between public and private sectors being much more common. Too often partnership aims have broken down in the practical detail. The new rules for drones seek to "improve the restriction of drones flying in sensitive or dangerous areas, and empower the enforcement of safety, security and privacy at a local level". The detailed proposals for police powers and fixed penalty notices should certainly help with enforcement, but the detail has yet to emerge for the other issues in the DfT proposals,.
Drone operators have a maze to navigate to ensure that they are complying with the rules on where drones can be flown. The Drone Safe website provided by the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) states that "The CAA supports any measure to improve drone safety but, as a regulator, cannot endorse individual product". The onus is on users to satisfy themselves that the information they use is correct and current.
Publicly identifying drones has also proved to be controversial. The 1903 Motor car Act required that cars displayed license plates at a time when there were only about 20,000 private motor cars in the country. Precise figures are not available for drones in the UK, but available sales records over the last few years show that there are well over a million drones being used in the UK, perhaps many more. Some drone manufacturers have developed software for use by police, security services, and airports to identify their drones, but there is no statutory requirement for this yet.
Partnerships between government and industry are proposed to ensure that most drones are geofenced electronically to prevent them from flying into protected areas, such as near airports, power stations and prisons. Geofencing becomes particularly important when using drones in densely populated or sensitive areas. Nesta's Flying High report shows that drones could potentially be applied to benefit organisations like the NHS and that most people will accept drone use in cities for such purposes. People understand that drones are potentially better than other sorts of transport for ensuring rapid and safe transport of drugs between hospitals. Even during the early stages of the Nesta project in 2017, there was widespread agreement amongst participants that urgent regulatory action would help everyone. The absence of effective regulation in the two years since then, has instead resulted in drones becoming a mainstream approach for delivering illegal drugs into prisons, in addition to a growing inconvenience at airports. Just like any other technology, drones could be modified by skilled people to override geo-limitations, but standard geo-fencing would currently stop most of the illegal use. Police enforcement could then focus enforcement at the small number of cases where illegal use depends on higher technology skills.
Self-regulation within the industry is already encouraging members of the public to highlight concerns about drone use including publicly editable maps about suitable flying locations for drones. DfT say that they want to work with industry to ensure that robust data is available in convenient formats. There is always a danger when government chooses to work with a few large companies as is proposed, that it ends up agreeing procedures, data formats or other restrictions that protect big companies from competition. To avoid this, a good start would be to provide real time data describing the locations restricted by current government legislation (in industry standard formats like XML and JSON). That way the manufacturing companies can integrate the UK requirements easily into their global geo-fencing systems.
In the technological 21st century one of the most important regulatory functions is to ensure accurate open data whether for drones, buses, or any other mode of transport. For example, the costs of tracking every bus and streaming the locations to a public website are trivial compared with the benefits. Operators are concerned that any new technology imposed on them by transport authorities would be excessively complex and could be used to attack their performance, whilst authorities explain a lack of operator data in terms of perceived commercial benefits from poor public accountability. The main casualty of this stand-off is a lack of public trust in transport.
Partnership between government and industry on new technology is important but it needs to be built on strong foundations that only robust shared data can provide.
Derek Halden is Director at DHC Loop Connections and Secretary of Scotland's transport think tank STSG www.loopconnections.org.uk